Veteran cornet player Bobby Bradford’s weeklong tour in late March, with a quartet organized by Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, put him in a mood to reminisce. Maybe it was their auspicious starting point: Austin’s Victory Grill, the same place Bradford first heard his soon-to-be-boss Ornette Coleman 62 years earlier.
The quartet mostly traveled by car, but the hours went by faster than usual. Bradford held forth on various topics, including stuff he’s famous for not doing — like, how he wasn’t on Coleman’s first records, despite being his original trumpet player, or on 1960′s epic Free Jazz even after Coleman sent him a plane ticket. He also talked about a bit of business related to the Kennedy assassination.
On the final night of the tour, five minutes before the quartet went on at Baltimore’s Windup Space, Bradford sat at the bar talking to his bassist Ingebrigt Haaker Flaten (who’s from Norway but lives in Austin) and Chicago drummer Frank Rosaly about European improvised music, a topic of interest to both. The short version: He gets it. But then he’s been playing with Europeans since the early ’70s. “Even if they don’t have the blues in their playing, they can still draw on their own folk music, something closer to home,” Bradford said.
As he talked, a few people came over to say hi, and slowly a crowd began to form, pulled in by his measured voice. Gjerstad came over to usher the band on stage, and he got pulled in too.
Lester Young famously said a jazz solo should tell a little story — one that develops its themes, and takes you someplace. Bobby Bradford honors that ideal. He gets a warm, airy sound on cornet, trumpet’s stubbier cousin, and peppers his solos with shapely motifs he develops in orderly ways.
You can hear a bebop background in his easy facility, even in this quartet where the musicians invent the form on the spot. But then Bradford’s been playing in that freebop style just about longer than anyone. He stood next to Ornette Coleman part of the time he was inventing it.
Bobby Bradford was born 80 years ago, on July 19, 1934, deep in Mississippi blues country. He left when he was around 10, his ears already opened by an itinerant guitarist who’d play down at the dry goods store, by Sonny Boy Williamson’s King Biscuit radio show, and by the loose unisons of country church singing.
“My father’s family were serious, hardcore Baptists — my father, his brothers, their father and his brother were all preachers,” Bradford said over the phone a few weeks after the recent tour. After his parents split, he and his brother followed their father to Dallas. Bradford got himself a Morning News paper route, clearing enough money to buy himself a sharp Bulova watch.
“Our neighbor would sit on his porch and play popular songs on this beat-up cornet when he had nothing else to do. One day he was playing” — Bradford sings the “my-mama-done-told-me” riff from “Blues in the Night.” “I could see how he puckered to make the notes and how he wiggled the second valve, so I said to him [the neighbor], ‘Wallace, I bet I can do that.’ I took the horn, and after two or three minutes I got it down. Soon after, I traded my watch for his cornet. He said, ‘Ask your daddy if it’s OK,’ so I ran home, ran straight through the house and came right back around: ‘He said OK!’”
Bradford joined the Lincoln High band, where there was a bebop clique. He bought a proper trumpet as soon as he could. “When I was a senior in high school or freshman in college, we’d have little group sessions, trying to take tunes down from records, playing them over and over. I cut my teeth on Fats Navarro solos, on Bud Powell’s ‘Dance of the Infidels’ or ‘Bouncing with Bud.’ ‘Nostalgia,’ where Fats plays with the cup mute real tight in the bell — that’s a fuckin’ insane trumpet solo!”
Bradford graduated high school on a Friday in January 1952. The following Monday morning, he started at Huston College in East Austin, where Fort Worth drummer Charles Moffett was in the band. “Then word started spreading: Ornette Coleman was coming to town!” he remembers. “Everyone had already heard of him, this wild guy from Fort Worth with his curly hair piled on his head, and his Cuban heels. He was only coming to be best man at Moffett’s wedding, but they had a jam session right after. I’m sure the bride loved this!”
Coleman was already getting a reputation for stepping outside a tune’s form while improvising. “Ornette would start to play conventionally, then go off to those places he liked to go. Some people said, ‘That’s the worst thing I ever heard.’ I thought, ‘What the hell was that?’ It was clear he had his own sensibility, and wasn’t that much into the boppers. When I soloed at that time, if I had an idea that didn’t fit the chord, I wouldn’t use it. Ornette had another idea.”
In ’53 Bradford quit school and moved to Los Angeles. On the trolley, he ran into Coleman, who had also moved to the city, and they teamed up under Coleman’s leadership, playing occasional gigs and rehearsing often.
“We played down in the red-light district, around Fifth and Main, where you’d buy weed if you were new in town. Sometimes we had piano, sometimes not. We played standards and the bop-oriented tunes that [Ornette] later recorded on his first albums. He didn’t have a strong command of notation, but he knew what he intended. A piece like ‘Peace,’ you’ve got to play it the way he shows it to you. We’d play it together till it was as natural as singing ‘Happy Birthday.’”
But by the time Coleman first recorded in 1958, Bradford was back in Texas, playing in Air Force bands. When he got out of the service, he went back to Austin to finish college. He’d also married singer Melba Joyce and started a family.
Meanwhile, Coleman and replacement trumpeter Don Cherry had moved to New York, and Coleman was plotting his album Free Jazz for Double Quartet: two of everything, stereo-separated. He wanted Bradford to play opposite Cherry, and sent him a plane ticket. Bradford, in mid-semester at school, went to his teachers to explain the situation and request incompletes. His French prof said, bien sûr. The rest said they’d flunk him. So he returned the ticket, and Freddie Hubbard got the gig. Still, Bradford has no regrets.
“In Europe especially, writers say [affecting a posh accent], ‘If you’d been on Free Jazz, you could have been more famous.’ Those writers don’t have a clue. Going to New York, I would have lost the whole semester, and I was getting some heat at home about getting a job.”
The next time Coleman offered, Bradford jumped. In 1962, he came to New York to join Coleman’s new quartet with Moffett on drums. But that was also the moment Coleman decided he was underpaid and tripled his fee, so the band barely got gigs. The quartet recorded an unreleased album for Atlantic; it surely would’ve come out by now, but the tapes got destroyed in a fire. (Bradford finally turned up on Coleman’s 1971 recording Science Fiction.)
In the fall of 1963, Bradford was teaching way out in Crockett, Texas, and he and Melba worked some in Dallas. They got occasional weekend gigs at a strip club where cops hung out. There was a pay phone in the back room, with musicians’ names, instruments and phone numbers penciled all around it. That was how the boss put his bands together.
Then came the Kennedy assassination. Two days later, Bradford had the TV on, watching Lee Harvey Oswald being walked out of the Dallas police station. Then he saw his boss from the strip club step out of the crowd and shoot Oswald. Investigators descended on Jack Ruby’s club. They saw the writing on the wall.
“That night or the next, the local cops come to the door in Crockett at 1 o’clock in the morning. They showed me some pictures: ‘Do you know any of these people?’ Trying to make a connection between Ruby and Oswald. They wanted to talk to Melba too, but she was driving back to Dallas that night. I told them where she was headed, and the FBI was waiting for her when she got there.
“The media said Ruby did it because Oswald killed Ruby’s hero JFK. But everyone from Dallas knew another story: It was because Oswald had shot a cop named Tippit right after the assassination, and Tippit was Jack Ruby’s lover. I don’t know why, but I never heard that story outside Texas.”
Bradford soon returned to Southern California for good, and his fortunes improved. Coleman recommended him to another Fort Worth reed player now in L.A., alto saxophonist and clarinetist John Carter — Bradford’s frequent partner till his death in 1991.
Two recent reissues help chart their evolution. On 1969′s Flight for Four, Coleman’s influence is plain in the pianoless quartet format and freewheeling interplay, though Carter has his own alto style. By the time of the 1979 and ’82 duo concerts on Tandem, their super-tight blend was utterly distinctive. By then Carter played only clarinet, with an electrifying squealy sound, and Bradford had gone back to the mellower cornet. He made the switch in 1973 during a long English residency, working with drummer John Stevens and altoist Trevor Watts, his first European contacts. (He’d already recorded with them two years earlier.)
Back in California Bradford led and recorded with his own bands, featuring his own compositions. His writing got wider exposure in 1994, when onetime student David Murray recorded his suite Death of a Sideman dedicated to Carter, with Bradford on cornet.
John Stevens had put him together with Frode Gjerstad in a 1986 quartet, and they’d hit it off. The American and the Norwegian started working together occasionally, in small groups and Gjerstad’s Circulasione Totale Orchestra. Which brings us back to where the story started.
What we didn’t mention: The first night of that spring tour, Bradford had slipped getting out of bed in the wee hours, and suffered killing back pain the whole time he was entertaining the band. After he got home he found out he had a compression fracture of a spinal vertebra: “The doctor says I’ll make a complete recovery but it won’t be quick.” (His recovery was well along by late June.)
He wrote in an email soon after that diagnosis, “In retrospect, I don’t know how I managed to make the tour. But it will make a great story ’round the campfire.”