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.
Oh yeah, he still plays, too. Bradford just did a festival in Northern California. As you read this, he’s off to Portugal in a band with Vinny Golia, Alex Cline and Ken Filiano. In September he’s playing Monterey with his Mo’tet.
A couple of Mondays ago, Bradford and Golia arrive at Silver Lake’s little Salvation Theater for a duo performance that echoes former years’ Bradford-Carter work both in form and, now and then, in material. It’s sold out, which means there are about 50 people poised to soak up every note.
Avant-garde it may be, but there’s a sweetness to this teaming attributable to a long-standing teacher-student vibe that persists even though Golia, in his mid-50s, is an established educator himself. Reading from charts, the two finish each other’s phrases, hit long notes and riffs together, create head-shivering harmonies, intertwine their lines tightly — Bradford on cornet, Golia on sopranino sax, B-flat clarinet and Tubax, a new variation on the huge contrabass sax. When Golia picks up his bass clarinet, he eyeballs his partner, apologizing, “I know you don’t like this instrument.” “Oh, I like it,” deadpans Bradford. “I just don’t show it.”
When the doors close, the room gets hot, but Golia is hotter, reeling off unbordered phantasmagoria through his circular-breathing technique. Bradford, by contrast, is uncomfortable in the vest he’s worn over his long-sleeve shirt, and his playing is often blurry around the edges. The humidity causes extra condensation, which the musicians frequently have to dump from their horns; by intermission, they’re both standing in pools of water.
Bradford finds his pace after the break, diving into a soft, flowing zone that drips with feeling, and Golia rolls on undiminished through Bradford’s “Side Steps.” The audience wants more, but the two beg off; they’re sweating like plow horses.
Host Jeremy Drake takes the stage and plugs the CDs available in the lobby. Among those are two new ones by Bradford. One was recorded last year on the patio of the L.A. County Museum of Art with a spectacular seven-member Mo’tet featuring Don Preston, Roberto Miranda and Chuck Manning; though the recording quality is only somewhat better than you’d expect from an open-air gig on cement, it’s a valuable document of a varied, swinging modern set with numerous brilliant solos. Another is a more austere, very adventurous trio disc with saxist Francis Wong and tuba player William Roper. (You can buy both at a few local stores or by e-mailing email@example.com.)
“Come and get ’em,” urges Drake. “They’re going fast.”
Golia, breaking down his horns, snickers loudly. “They’re going fast” is quite a relative statement. And in the twilight of the deep-rooted jazzmen, it has more than one meaning.