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Friday Night Prayer Meeting

By Kirk Silsbee
[courtesy of Arroyo Monthly]

It's the first Friday night of the new year and the drive from Santa Monica to Pasadena has been an ordeal. The peristaltic traffic is enough to make one question the wisdom of living in Southern California, and on Sierra Madre Boulevard, the wind blows the rain across the road in sheets. But at the building marked 322, the soft glow of internal light acts as a silent beacon in the darkness. It's a night when beacons are welcome.


Bobby Bradford (photo by Michael Germana)

Inside the brown stucco building is the congenial restaurant and bar Café 322, where light and activity aren't the only things that vanquish the cold and damp. Past the bar, at the far side of the dining area, sonic heat emanates from the north wall. Musicians are playing in a spirit that combines the jocularity of a fraternal order gathering, the purpose of a communal chemistry experiment, the shared faith of a séance, the adrenaline rush of an athletic contest and the fervor of a prayer meeting in a storefront church. Of course, money is involved too. It's the first Friday of another month, which means the Bobby Bradford Mo'tet has convened for its regular gig at Café 322.

Almost all of the players are bandleaders, but the leader of this pack is Bradford himself, a compact, neatly groomed man with close-cropped gray hair and cocoa-brown skin. He comes by his bespectacled, professorial look honestly: Bradford is a semi-retired teacher who still teaches jazz ensemble and jazz history at Pomona College in Claremont. More than that, he has lived a significant chunk of jazz history.

Bradford was one of the first musicians to take the leap of faith that free jazz innovator Ornette Coleman needed from his supporting players when he formulated his revolutionary music. A developing young bebopper when they began playing together in 1953, Bradford was awed by the alto saxophonist and composer's radical departure from standard chord changes, harmony and methodology. It was a bleak musical existence at the time; Coleman's persistent belief in himself and his music earned him scorn, and his crew faced hostility, indifference and ignorance. Nonetheless, it would earn Coleman a Pulitzer Prize in 2007, and Bradford was one of the first musicians anywhere to internalize the jazz pioneer's groundbreaking modus operandi.

“Ornette would come to these jam sessions,” Bradford recalls between sets, “and he got treated really badly in Los Angeles by a lot of people.” While Coleman's compositions sparked interest, they also led to evictions: He was thrown off many bandstands for departing from the musical structure when he improvised. Bradford notes that Coleman's detractors dismissed him as being “totally illiterate. But I never once doubted that this guy was a genius.”

Before he ran headlong into the music of Coleman (another Texan), Bradford was, like so many young black musicians of his generation, schooled in rhythm 'n' blues yet forging an identity in bebop and modern jazz. Coleman had broken the bonds of standardized keys and chord changes. Tonal centers and linear themes required musicians who were willing to step into the unknown and, with a small band of adherents like Bradford, Coleman willed his music into existence.

Bradford had heard Coleman play once in Texas, and when the two ran into each other on LA's Red Car in 1953, they renewed their acquaintance. They worked mostly on Fifth Street, in some of the most dangerous bars of the red-light district. Their association ended in 1954 when Bradford entered the Air Force.

The trumpeter rejoined Coleman in New York at the end of 1961 for about a year. There they finally recorded together, on 1971's “Science Fiction” (Columbia) album. By then, Bradford was a confirmed Angeleno, and the group he co-led with clarinet virtuoso John Carter had formed one of the cornerstones of new music in SoCal. The 73-year-old Altadena resident is the last remaining pillar of the triumvirate that spearheaded the new black music here in the turbulent 1960s. Carter and Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra founder, pianist Horace Tapscott, have passed on. (It was shortly after Carter's death in 1991 that Bradford formed the Mo'tet.)

Like those Texas transplants, he retains the South in his soul. His Mississippi birth and Texas upbringing are always evident in his highly personal cornet syntax, no matter how cutting edge the musical context.

Although he began on the trumpet, in the early 1970s, Bradford switched to the cornet, that instrument's more pugnacious brother. The cornet's sound is comparatively blunt and capable of more guttural sounds, especially in the lower register. Bradford likes those dirty tones; they serve him well in his music, which is seldom very far from the feeling or the forms of the blues.

Back at Café 322, Bradford seems pleased as he surveys the crowded tables. “When we play at LACMA, people are socializing and walking around,” he says. “I wouldn't think of calling some of these things we do here, that just kind of hang in the air. Those spooky, gauzy things that we do would just get lost there. But we can do them at 322.

“The band has never had the kind of continuous exposure we're getting here. Up to [last fall when] we started to work here, we didn't work very often. So I'm trying to figure out how to keep this going and do something special with it. We recorded here last month.”

On the stand at 322 is pony-tailed trombonist Mike Vlatkovich, who favors Hawaiian shirts (even on a rainy night) and splits his time between LA and Portland. Tenor saxophonist Chuck Manning is a seasoned, prolix improviser who always looks 10 years younger than he really is, while guitarist Ken Rosser looks like a bank president after hours. Pianist Don Preston, the electronic genius of Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention in the late '60s, is also a soundtrack composer of note. Contrabassist Roberto Miranda exudes simmering passion without losing his air of studiousness.

One of the hallmarks of a great band is the ability to surprise even its most knowledgeable listeners. But tonight at 322, drummer William Jeffrey is conspicuous in his absence. Absent drums would probably sink almost any other jazz-oriented vessel, but for the Mo'tet (a play on the polyphonic form of music introduced in medieval times — in Bradford's band, there's always room for mo' musicians), it just means a new set of sound possibilities.

Bradford chooses “A Little Pain” from his now venerable “Death of a Sideman” suite. Written with the under-appreciated supporting players of jazz in mind, the piece has provided the backbone of the band's repertory for nearly 15 years. “Pain” has a brisk tempo, and it's usually propelled by dotted drumbeats. Tonight, the sonorous harmonies of the horns and Rosser's guitar lines take on a rough quality, like a choir of alley denizens. Miranda's bass provides the pulse. Rather than be overwhelmed, Miranda seems to thrive on the challenge. His notes are strong, and his time is sure. He maintains the beat — leaning on the backbeat notes — yet still plays figures that complement or offer counterpoint to other voices.

As in any restaurant with music, there are tables of people who are oblivious to the sounds. They socialize under the colorful, framed opera posters; in such a setting, it's the price of the ticket. But there are also Mo'tet partisans who are as intent on the musicians and the music as a paroled convict at a strip club. One bearded face is a familiar sight: George Herms, the LA assemblage artist and teacher, who can be seen at most Mo'tet gigs. His eyes light up between sets as he considers the importance of the music to his work.

“I saw Thelonious Monk at the Renaissance,” he recalls of the modern jazz architect and a now-forgotten Hollywood club of the early '60s (on the site of what is now House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard). “He set the bar so high with his music that I thought I had to reach at least that high in my own work. Later on, I heard Bobby and John Carter at the Century City Playhouse, and I loved the way they organized their music. I've tried to retain that sense of the organic in my own pieces.”

When the applause dies down, Bradford roots around his sheaf of charts and makes a selection. He gives instructions to the band, and Rosser begins the number with an eerie, out-of-tempo guitar intro. Now the horns and guitar are voicing the dirge-like wail of “Have You Seen Sideman?” — the funeral march of the suite. The bass expands, filling the void where the press rolls of the drums would be. The horns congeal with tones that cling to each other for one bar and separate the next until suddenly, the ceiling becomes the oppressively humid sky that hangs over one of the crumbling New Orleans cemeteries. They've made more than a little magic and defied nature's pall this night.

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