In Loving Memory of Jack Bradley

The ranks are thinning, my friends. And the world just got a whole lot less fun. Jack Bradley has left us, passing away on March 21 at the age of 87. 

I've had less than a day to process the news but mentally, I'm already planning a series of tributes on the Louis Armstrong House Museum's "That's My Home" virtual exhibit site, as well as on social media. I know Jack's close friend Mick Carlon is putting together an obituary, though do check out Mick's earlier JazzTimes profile for a great glimpse at the Jack we knew. 

Others knew him far better than I. I didn't know Jack in New York or in his Jazz Museum days. I didn't know "Captain Jack," who ran a charter boat service for decades on Cape Cod. One person who knew Jack like a son is Loren Schoenberg, who first came upon Jack's spell nearly 50 years ago and wrote upon hearing the sad news, "I owe him everything, as do so many others, and find myself still walking through doors in my life that in essence Jack opened for me."

I have to say that in many ways, I feel the same way. Bigger, more lavish appreciations of his relationship with Louis Armstrong are forthcoming but I'd like to use this space to talk about my relationship with Jack.

After experiencing my Armstrong epiphany in 1995, I would often encounter Jack's name in liner notes, often accompanying photos of Pops, photos Jack took or ones that he collected. He made an impression on me with his heartfelt stories in the 1999 BBC documentary The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong, too. I began attending Rutgers in 2003, getting a master's degree in Jazz History and Research and writing a thesis on Louis's later years that became the foundation of my first book, What a Wonderful World. Dan Morgenstern was my out-and-out hero and in April 2004, I interviewed him for the first time. At the end of the interview, Dan told me I should really talk to Jack Bradley but warned me that his health wasn't the best and that he might not be up for such an interview. 

I soon learned this was a recurring theme. Over the ensuing years, Jack would struggle through various ailments, multiple hip surgeries, and was even diagnosed with Parkinson's when he was 84. I just learned last week that he had part of his pancreas removed in the late 80s and wasn't really ever the same after that to the point where his devoted wife Nancy admitted that she didn't think he'd live past the year 2000 and considered every year that followed to be a bonus--21 extra years is a pretty good bonus!

Jack at his home in the early 2000s.

Anyway, even with Dan's recommendation, I was wary of reaching out to Jack for the rest of my Rutgers tenure. I graduated in 2005 and got serious about turning my thesis into a book the following year. The time had arrived and after Dan and clarinetist Joe Muranyi vouched for me, I had a wonderful interview with Jack in the summer of 2006. I still have a cassette of it somewhere but am not sure I'm ready to listen to it.

At that time, Jack was the film man at Satchmo Summerfest, closing out each day with rare gems from his collection (usually shown with a film projector). After the 2007 Summerfest, Jack's health prevented him from ever going back to New Orleans, which indirectly opened the door for me to take over Jack's role beginning in 2008. Mighty large shoes to fill but it was an honor to follow Jack's lead. 

It was at the 2009 Satchmo Summerfest that Michael Cogswell, Director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, told me that the Armstrong House recently received a two-year grant to hire a Project Archivist to specifically arrange, preserve and catalog the Jack Bradley Collection. He hinted that maybe I should consider applying. I almost fell off my chair.

Jack's collection was beyond monumental, the world's largest private collection of all-things Armstrong. He wanted to find a home for it and probably could have received more money if he chose an institution such as the New York Public Library or Smithsonian. But he wanted his stuff to be near Louis's stuff so an agreement was made that all of his Armstrong-related belongings would go to the Armstrong Archives, with the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation providing a grant to make this happen. 

Jack at home in 2001.

There was only one thing: Jack could not bear to watch a moving truck come in and take his life's work, his life's passion, in one fell swoop. An agreement was made: Cogswell and his team would come up once a year and take whatever they could fit into a van and then give Jack a full year to decompress. Michael fondly told the story that during the first 2005 trip to pick up Jack's records, Jack had to flip through every single one before they left, often telling stories about the circumstances he acquired them, before they could take them from his house. They also took Armstrong-related magazines that year. In 2006, it was Jack's photos and negatives. In 2007 it was clothing and three-dimensional objects. In 2008, it was personal papers, sheet music, letters and news clippings.

All of it was brought to the Armstrong Archives at Queens College and placed in the stacks. At the time, the Archives only employed a part-time Archives Assistant and occasionally had help from student workers so the Bradley Collection piled up in more and more disarray with each passing year.

That's when Michael got the two-year grant to finally hire a full-time Archivist to make sense of this stuff. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and I went to work putting together an application. When it came time to list references, I cagily included Jack Bradley himself; I'm no dummy. Eventually I got called in to do an in-person interview, after which Michael and the search committee brought me in the back to see the collection in the stacks. It was boxes and boxes, all with Jack's handwriting, usually with "LOUIS" scrawled on the side, and there was no order to anything. Michael opened one box and pulled out a stack of contact sheets. 

The boxes I had to work with, when they were still at Jack's home.

"You'll be working with material like this," he said, showing me a contact sheet with images of the All Stars in a recording studio.

"Wow, that's a Mercury recording session from 1964," I exclaimed like a robot. 

The search committee looked at each other. "How do you know that?" Michael asked.

"Because there's Big Chief Moore and Eddie Shu and that edition of the All Stars was only together for about six months and in that time, they only made two recording sessions, both for Mercury. This has to be one of them."

Three hours later, they offered me the job and I haven't looked back since. Dizzy once said, "I'd like to thank Louis Armstrong for my livelihood." Well, I felt--and still--the same way about Jack Bradley. Without getting the opportunity to replace him at Satchmo Summerfest and without getting the opportunity to get a full-time job arranging his collection, I might still be a house painter on the Jersey Shore. Thank you, Jack Bradley.

Now I've got the job of my dreams. That's when Michael Cogswell tells me that on my second day, we'll be taking a road trip to Cape Cod to pick up the last of the Bradley Collection. Holy smokes. And that's how it went. Day 1 was just getting acclimated to the office and the basics of job and Day 2, I was meeting Michael at a car rental place in the Village and we were off to Cape Cod.

We arrived about four hours later, blasting an alternate take of "St. Louis Blues" (about to be issued for the first time on the upcoming Mosaic Records set) as we pulled in. Jack and Nancy couldn't have been nicer. I was still shy, but just as Louis made Jack feel comfortable the first time they were alone together in Louis's Corona, Queens home, Jack immediately put me at ease. I already knew that my job was an important one, but that visit with Jack made it crystal clear that I now had a duty and a mission to take this all very seriously, to treat Jack's collection and Louis's collection with the utmost respect. Jack was counting on me and I couldn't let him down. 

(After my friend and mentor Gosta Hagglof passed away earlier in 2009, I was copied on an email from Jack to Yoshio Toyama in which he wrote, "Recently received a package of Louis material from Ricky Riccardi which is beyond words; CDs, DVDs, and a manuscript of his forthcoming book on Pops. Thank God he came on the scene at the right time and is a perfect replacement for our friend, Gosta Hagglof." I did not--and still do not--take such sentiments lightly.)

I couldn't believe Jack and Nancy's home. This was Michael's fifth trip to the Cape and it looked like nothing had been removed. Every room, the basement, the attic, just packed to the gills with STUFF. Here's a photo I took of Jack during that trip to give you a flavor:

And here's Jack with his beloved dog Bo, in front of what was dubbed his "Vinyl Resting Place":

I almost fell over when I spotted the original bottle of Slivovice plum brandy, as polished off by Jack, Dan and Louis in May 1965. (If you don't know what that sentence means, stop what you're doing and go HERE to listen to the full 2 1/2 hour "Slivovice Interview" and to base in Jack's gorgeous photos taken that day.)

We weren't sure what to expect with Jack's health--he needed frequent breaks to lie down--but he did manage to go out to eat with us.

That night Jack grew very emotional about the work we were doing. He talked about how in the 1960s, he was ridiculed by many in the jazz world for being so obsessed with Armstrong. After marrying Nancy, she was the stable one in the relationship, earning a steady paycheck as a public school Spanish teacher, while Jack did his best to piece together through his photos, giving lectures, running his charter boat and whatever else he could. Yet he always believed he was on the right course and when the Armstrong Foundation came through with its grant and when he saw all the attention being paid to Armstrong--books, documentaries, tribute concerts, the opening of the Archives, the Museum, etc.--he truly felt vindicated. Tears came to his eyes as he talked about it. 

Michael and I slept over on the Cape and returned to finish the job the next day. I saw Jack pull out a camera but it didn't bear a resemblance to the beautiful Canon's he shot with in the 1960s. It was a Kodak disposable camera, which he said was his new weapon of choice. I couldn't resist snapping him in action:

The quality of the disposable camera wasn't exactly pristine, but I'm still happy to have a scan of this print, taken before we left, something I treasure, considering how much I owe to Jack and Michael and how we have now lost both of them within a year:

Michael took this one of Jack and myself in front of the packed van:

And with that, we were off and I was free to actually start my daily duties. I'd check in with Jack from time to time and he always encouraged me to carry on. In December 2010, Nancy reached out to me wanting to surprise Jack for his birthday. Jack hated technology but was impressed by my iPod Classic and the fact that I had thousands of Louis Armstrong songs in a device that fit in the palm of my hand. Could I do something similar for Jack? Could I! Nancy bought one with a large hard drive and had it mailed to my home. I plugged it in and dragged everything that would fit onto it, even creating playlists for studio recordings, live recordings, chronological recordings and more. Jack was absolutely knocked out. He never quite learned how to use it properly but learned to just hit the "Shuffle" option, sit back and relax. He would call me occasionally when he heard something that especially moved him, such as the trumpet solo on "Short But Sweet" from 1965 that left him screaming with delight.

Technology wasn't Jack's best friend and he didn't even write many emails but in compiling this tribute, I found this one that I'd like to share to give a taste of Sailor Jack. Names have been withheld to protect the innocent (or guilty) but suffice to say, someone had written false information on Louis and that was too much for Jack to take. He wrote:

"I always suspected [name redacted] was full of shit, but not the good kind. ... I'd like to jump on the band wagon and run over this motherfucker. Since I'm still recovering from surgery I'm not up to leading the band on the band wagon, but perhaps, one of you guys might. Being an old sailor I also would be happy to tie a salty knot so we can hang him up by his Balls."

That was our Jack.

The surgery referenced in that June 2010 emails was one of his two hip replacement surgeries that left him walking with a cane. I called him to see how he was doing and in the middle of our conversation, he casually asked, "Hey, when you were last hear, you got the Louis tapes in the attic, right?" I told Michael and we agreed that we should pay him a visit sooner rather than later.

At that same time, the usually exciteable and blustery clarinetist Joe Muranyi began suffering from a heart ailment and seemed to age 50 years overnight. Now frail and soft-spoken, Joe wanted to visit his Cape Cod home to retrieve some things since he wasn't sure how much longer he had left. A road trip commenced with Michael, Joe and myself off to the Cape. Oh, how I wish I had an iPhone with a voice recorder back then as I remember the conversation was scintillating, Joe talking about Louis with Fletcher Henderson, me playing unissued All Stars concerts and getting their reactions and so on. I'll never forget, when Joe and Jack greeted each other, Joe simply said, "Survivors," which gave me the chills.

By this point, I was just about finished with Jack's collection and we were about to launch an Online Catalog to search through the Museum's Archival Collections. I brought up my laptop to show Jack the progress we had made. Michael sensed this was a special almost passing-of-the-torch moment and snapped a few photos I'll always treasure. 

There's something about this one, with the light shining through the window, that always gets me I think all three of us felt guided by Louis at some point:

(Speaking of "guided by Louis," a quick sidenote: I submitted the manuscript for my first book in August 2009, two months before I started working for the Armstrong House. The plan was an early 2010 release but my publisher then decided to delay it a year-and-a-half into June 2011. In that time, I got intimately familiar with the Bradley Collection and was able to add so much new and vital information into the manuscript before publication. I hate to get mystical but it did feel like Louis might have caused that delay so I could have some extra time to find more treasures buried within the Archives....)

After two visits in two years, I thought Cape Cod trips would be an annual part of the routine but unfortunately, we had everything we needed and didn't go back for several more years. Jack's health continued to fluctuate but he had an incredible support group on the Cape, led by author and teacher Mick Carlon and trombonist Mike Persico, who became an incredible asset to Jack in his final years, finally help him wrap his arms around his monumental non-Louis collection. 

In late 2014, I curated an exhibit of "Treasures from the Jack Bradley Collection" for the Armstrong House. It was met with a tremendous wave of publicity, including a New York Times feature. This piqued Jack's interest, as he now toyed with coming down to New York. He hadn't been there since an Armstrong House event in 2005 but the time seemed right and a date was made for February 2015. Traveling wouldn't be easy but Mick Carlon would see that he got there--whether he liked it or not. Sure enough, right up to the last minute, an apprehensive Jack looked for ways to get out of the trip. Luck seemed to be on his side when the Cape was hit with a giant snow storm the night before he was to leave. That didn't stop Mick, who showed up with a shovel, dug Jack out, got him in the car and headed to Queens. 

(For Mick's wonderful telling of the trip to New York, accompanied by stunning photos by James Demaria, please order a copy of the Winter 2020 edition of Sascha Feinstein's journal Brilliant Corners . The text and images aren't available online but do yourself a favor and support this essential publication.)

Almost immediately, Jack started snapping photos of his old haunt:

He was especially taken by the Satchmobile (which featured one of his photos):

Eventually, we made it inside to see the exhibit, which was met with his approval:

For old time's sake, we took Jack for a walk around the Armstrong House. Unlike most visitors, he made himself at home behind Louis's desk.....

....and on his toilet!

And here's one of James's photos taken in the kitchen with Ben Flood, Jack, Mick and myself:

Afterwards, Jack relaxed at Selma Heraldo's house, the home of Louis's beloved long-time neighbor, now part of the Armstrong House "campus." James Demaria interviewed him and captured a wonderful 9-minute portrait of Jack in action. You can watch it on Facebook here

After spending the afternoon resting, Jack and Mick hit the town at night. I was lucky to join them at a performance by Vince Giordano's Nighthawks, Jack loving every minute of it (he even won a CD in the raffle!). All the musicians came up to shake his hand, including trumpeter Jon Erik-Kellso, pictured here with Jack, me and David Ostwald:

Upon leaving Iguana, David drove Jack and Mick to their hotel in Queens. I was in the backseat with my iPhone in one hand and iPod in the other. David asked me to play the 1956 Decca version of "When You're Smiling." Jack immediately lit up. I sensed this was special and with my phone, began discreetly filming the happenings from the back seat. It was dark so apologize for the lousy visual in this video but listen to Jack positively erupt when Louis's trumpet solo begins. He had probably heard that recorded 10,000 times over 60 years but it was still cause for celebration:

The next morning, Jack and Mick visited me and Michael at the Armstrong Archives. It was Jack's first trip there since we acquired his collection. This photo melts me, again, knowing they're both no longer with us:

The main goal for the morning was to show Jack how his collection was now properly housed and organized in the stacks. He approved and we decided to recreate a photo of him and Louis pointing at each other.

The other purpose was to show Jack scans of his photos and to have him identify anyone he could remember. He didn't remember many but it sure was a treat going through all the images with him. Here's one of James's photos of us in action, as Michael, Mick and Peter Moffet look on:

For proof that this was truly a magical day at the Archives, the front door opened and who should walk in but Hugh Masekela, there to perform at the College. He and Jack didn't know each out but got along beautifully from the start:

From the Archives, it was off to Birdland to catch David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Eternity Band. Once again, Jack was the belle of the ball. Here he is with trumpeter Bria Skonberg:

Jack left his disposable camera behind so it was nice to see him in action with the real deal:

Dan Morgenstern also joined the Birdland party and it was supremely touching to see these two old friends together again, 50 years after the Slivovice Interview:

And finally, a photo I know David Ostwald and I will always treasure as we always felt blessed to be in the presence of those who really know Louis (and we're still blessed to have Dan Morgenstern with us!):

The next morning, Jack headed back to the Cape, never to return to New York but people still talk about that visit--what an incredible time!

Jack and I remained in touch on the phone for the next couple of years. I took notes after one 2015 phone call. He told me about Louis asking to bring him marijuana in a Prince Albert can. He praised the Mosaic Records Armstrong set that had just come out up and down. He talked about the "magic" of Louis, who brings people together and still shows up in the most surprising places. "He keeps getting better! He's been dead for 40 years yet whenever I listen to him, he sounds greater than ever," he said. When I told him I was born in 1980, Jack erupted, "What!? You're a fucking kid!"

He also offered up this profound statement, which I can testify is indeed true: "People who really love Louis Armstrong are the greatest people in the world! I've never met a bad person who loves Louis." We told each other we loved one another. Over and over. I'm going to miss those phone calls.

Finally, in February 2017, we got the call from Mike Persico that we had been dreading: it seemed like the end was near. Did we want to say our final goodbyes? David Ostwald, Michael Cogswell and myself immediately jumped into David's car and flew up to the Cape. We were quieter than usual on this trip, I think each of us privately rehearsing what we would say to Jack. We envisioned it being a short visit, Jack probably in bed, holding our hands as we said we loved him and left in tears.

We pulled up. We entered. There was Nancy, Mick, Jack. "Oh brother," I thought to myself, "he must really be out." But then Nancy said, "Oh, Jack will be right out." And out strode Jack....carrying a joint! He looked great....and immediately offered to roll one to anyone who would want to partake.

Listen, I don't drink alcohol and I don't smoke. Judge if you want, that's how I roll. But when the late George Avakian offered me a vodka tonic, I gladly accepted and when Jack Bradley offered me a drag from his joint, I just said yes. 

Anyway, once the shock subsided that this wouldn't be a deathbed vigil, we had a wonderful time, which I documented with copious photos:

 Jack even got up and showed us around the basement, navigating the stairs without a problem:

More than just expecting to say our final goodbyes, there was another motive for the trip. The previous year, the Armstrong House received a $2.7 million grant from Fund II Foundation to digitize our entire collection. For the first time since I started every single one of Jack's photos--prints, snapshots, contact sheets, negatives--was professionally scanned and I had them all on a hard drive to give to him. Like that 2010 visit, I whipped out my laptop to show off the work, which pleased him immensely. Michael took these photos, which I'll always treasure:

Mick Carlon looks on in this one:

Finally, we took some group photos. If anyone of you out there loved Jack Bradley, please thank the people in this photo--Nancy Bradley, Mick Carlon, and Mike Persico--for all they did in his final years to make Jack happy, keep him motivated, and to take care of his life's work:

I grabbed one last selfie for the road, too:

We didn't know it at the time--or maybe deep down we did--but that was the last time we saw Jack. A year or two later, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, which slowly started robbing him of his motor skills and speech. While at Spaulding Rehabilitation, Jack and Nancy managed to be interviewed for the Above the Basement podcast, which can be listened to here. You can hear him slowing down a bit there, but the passion and love is still there. 

Around that time, Mike Persico got the idea of a full-blown tribute to Jack in a concert setting that would also showcase his many photos. This energized Jack, who looked forward to selecting the photos to be used. David Ostwald and I planned another visit to the Cape. All was looking up and then Covid-19 hit. There would be no more visits. But in an ultimate example of making lemonade out of lemons, Persico repurposed the tribute concert idea into a tribute film. He has been diligently working on the project for a year, having recorded the soundtrack the night before Jack passed away.

The film will still be a tribute but now it will be a memoriam. Mike hopes to have it finished in late April or May. I'll be sure to share any information about it once it is ready but bless Mick and Mike and Nancy for all the work they've done--and will continue to do--to ensure that Jack is never forgotten.

Jack's Armstrong Collection is fully searchable on the Digital Collections platform of the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Anyone can search it but if you go to "Login" and create an account, you can listen to tapes, watch videos and more. In the Advanced Search feature, click "Groupings," then "Collections," then select the "Jack Bradley Collection" and whatever you search will bring you the results from Jack's stash. Everything is watermarked but you can see thousands of photos and much, much more, insuring that researchers will be able to benefit from Jack for generations to come. 

I last spoke to Jack on his 86th birthday in January. He was pleasant but also sounded a bit foggy and the old spark wasn't quite there. David Ostwald agreed. Last Thursday, David and I talked about going up to see him in the nursing home he was recently admitted to. Jack was quarantining so we'd have to wait but my personal copies of the Mosaic discs and booklet had recently arrived and all we wanted to do was present it to him, play it for him, thank him and tell him we love him. It wasn't to be but I think Jack knew how we felt about him. And nearly all the photos in the booklet of the Mosaic set are either taken by Jack or from his collection so it will stand as a tribute of sorts to him, too. 

I prefer to remember when I spoke to him last August after sending him a copy of my new book. He was in a great mood and called Heart Full of Rhythm "the best book I've ever read....and if not, it's close!" He also thanked for me all the work I've done for his collection, saying that I was "the right man in the right place at the right time." And he closed by saying that if anyone says anything negative about me, "They'll have to deal with the wrath of Bradley!"

And now he's gone. And so is Michael Cogswell. And so is George Avakian. And so is Joe Muranyi. I was so lucky to know them. The ranks are thinning, but they all left their mark and will not be forgotten. Louis's music will last forever and I know that every time I hear it, I will think of all of them and so many more wonderful people I have been fortunate to know since first encountering Pops. 

But there was only one Jack Bradley. 

We'll always love you, Brother Jaxson!


Popular Posts