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":
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.
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:
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.
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....)
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.
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 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:
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:
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:
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: