Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Seeking John Carter and Bobby Bradford: Free Jazz and Community in Los Angeles

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Seeking John Carter and Bobby Bradford: Free Jazz and Community in Los Angeles

Article excerpt

Jazz, experimentation, and Los Angeles are ineluctably linked by history. The city and its active jazz scene were and continue to be a fertile ground for musicians who seek to challenge the boundaries of genre. Unfortunately, the city also has a reputation for being a very difficult place for experimenters. Such influential musicians as Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman all left Los Angeles before becoming well known. Those who remained, like Gerald Wilson and Horace Tapscott, seem almost as well known for their obscurity as their music. Fortunately, more recent publications have corrected this, bringing the music and stories of these Los Angeles innovators to broader audiences (Bryant et al. 1998; Tapscott and Isoardi 2001; Isoardi 2006; Dailey 2007; Sharp 2008). This essay examines the early career of two of the most overlooked, yet locally influential, musicians: John Carter and Bobby Bradford. I focus on their collaboration in a group called the New Art Jazz Ensemble, which was active from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. Carter and Bradford's music emphasized the decisions and choices of the musicians. Because this music did not fit easily into the commercial jazz world, the group found alternative places to present their music. Their music and actions inspired the formation of an active experimental music scene that still exists today.

Paths to Los Angeles

John Carter was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1929 and attended the same high school as Ornette Coleman, and also like Coleman, he played saxophone in rhythm-and-blues bands around the Dallas-Fort Worth area while being inspired by the new sounds of bebop. Unlike Coleman, Carter received a formal music education and pursued teaching as a career. After graduating from high school at age fifteen, Carter received a bachelor's degree in music education from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1949. While at Lincoln University, he also performed with various music groups in clubs in nearby Kansas City and St. Louis. He married, had a son, and began teaching elementary school in Fort Worth when only nineteen years old. Carter then earned a master of arts degree from the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1956. Attending graduate school in Colorado was more of a necessity than a choice because it was still difficult for African Americans to receive advanced degrees in Texas at the time (see Carter 1992, 9; Dailey 2007, 38-40).

The Carters moved to Los Angeles in 1961, where John secured a job as an elementary school music teacher. Like many other African Americans, Carter believed Los Angeles held the promise of greater opportunity for himself as well as his growing family (Sides 2003). As a musician, Carter was also attracted to what he thought was the city's active jazz scene. There was also the possibility of lucrative studio work to augment his teacher's salary. Unfortunately, what had been an active jazz scene was in rapid decline by the early 1960s, and studio work was challenging to secure for newcomers. Carter caught only the waning days of Central Avenue's jam sessions and was never able to break into the studio scene (Woodard 1991, 26; Dailey 2007,43-46). Additionally, the racial tensions in his new hometown were at the breaking point, marked by the eruption of the Watts riots in 1965 (Davis 1990,293; Home 1995). The growing consciousness that emerged in its wake inspired Carter to delve into more experimental music, particularly as he began collaborating with Bobby Bradford.

Bobby Bradford was born in Cleveland, Mississippi, in 1934 and moved to Dallas in 1946. He attended the same high school as such future luminaries as pianist Cedar Walton and saxophonists David "Fathead" Newman and James Clay. Bradford, a trumpet player, and his classmates were attracted to the modernism of bebop. They performed around the DallasFort Worth area where Bradford met Ornette Coleman, but coincidentally not John Carter. …

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