By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by Debra DiPaolo
Bobby Bradford plays his cornet in public several times a year, but mostly he teaches. Turning 69 next month, he’s where most jazz masters find themselves at some point or permanently: You work the first half of your life perfecting your lip action, finding your special sound, learning your chords, figuring out the whole thing. (When universities lay “honorary” degrees on musicians, people get the wrong idea about who’s honoring whom.) Then, when you’ve become a complete player — always growing, but complete — you spend half your time teaching youngsters the 12-bar blues.
Glory infinitely deferred isn’t a problem for Bradford. He’s content with the choices he has made for his family and for himself. Besides, not everybody is equipped to tell a student what the blues is and ain’t.
“All these tunes that sound kinda blue are not a blues,” he says. “In jazz, when we say blues, we’re talking about a specific form, not just some sad song about somebody stole your pickup truck.”
He also knows the limitations of a classroom. “One of the first things I say is I can’t teach you how to play blues. But I can teach you how to play the form.”
You can tell Bradford is a good communicator from the way his speech comes, in quick, easy bursts of Southern abbreviation. If he gave you directions to the turnpike, you’d get there.
His musical dialect is similarly pointed. In his rich, slightly astringent horn tone there’s a background of blues — wistful maybe, but not self-pitying. The church and the human faith of his minister father are there, too.
“The connection between the church music and the blues music is very clear, at least it was to me,” says the Mississippi-born Bradford. “Just a difference in the words. Same music.”
Those are the roots, but the flowers are modernist. When he was about 14, lugging his cornet past the house of pianist L.J. Bomar in East Dallas, Bradford always heard bop coming out the windows.
“One day he called me in and said, ‘Listen to this.’ The first record I think I heard was Fats Navarro and Dexter Gordon. Whshew. It knocked me out of my socks.” Trumpeter Navarro and saxist Gordon, two of the first to track Charlie Parker into the wilds of bebop, made small-group recordings together only in late 1947, so it must have been a brand-new platter at the time Bradford heard it. Soon he was copying the trumpet solos of Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie and McKinley (“Kenny”) Dorham, and when his family returned to Los Angeles (they’d moved here briefly during the World War II employment boom), Parker was the common ground for 1953 jams with locals and fellow transplants, among them Ornette Coleman.
Coleman hailed from Fort Worth, just down the highway from the Dallas high school where Bradford had been in the band with Cedar Walton, David “Fathead” Newman and James Clay; Bradford also knew Red Garland, Budd Johnson and T-Bone Walker in his old neighborhood. Texans hung together: Coleman found that, aside from Lone Star homeboys like Bradford, Clay, Dewey Redman, Charles Moffett and Ronald Shannon Jackson, he could locate few sympathetic ears for his chordless conceptions. Bradford would reunite with Coleman in 1971 for the Science Fiction album, but Coleman wasn’t pushing his “harmolodic” theory even then, at least not within his own group.
“Ornette certainly is a genius, there’s no argument about this guy. I think Ornette’s approach was all intuitive. But as time went by he was often called upon to explain what he was doing, so he had to be able some way to articulate it. But when I was in the band, feeling was what we talked about.”
After spending the latter ’50s in the Air Force — warrior designation: “bandsman” — Bradford, back in L.A., connected in the ’60s with another Fort Worth reed player he’d heard about in Texas, John Carter. “We both had families, both were teaching, and we both had some idea about what we wanted to play.” Their association would last until Carter’s 1991 death; meanwhile they recorded some ear-twisting stuff that, like Ornette’s, made listeners test their notions of what jazz really was.
“A lot of people said what John Carter and I did was classical music,” says Bradford, who’s worked with outsiders from David Murray to Nels Cline. “People’d say, ‘Is this jazz?’ Yeah, it’s still jazz to me, whether or not it swings in the sense of 4/4 swing. On Interstellar Space, Coltrane playin’ with his drummer [Rashied Ali] — he’s not keeping time. That still swings to me.”
Bradford settled down with his family in a rustic Altadena house 25 years ago, and he’s still there. He’s got two classes in improvisation at nearby Pasadena City College, which he likes because his students really want to learn. He also goes out to Pomona College twice a week to teach the history of jazz, a subject he has researched with thoroughness and love, as the approving images of Louis Armstrong and Lester Young on his walls would attest if they could speak.