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Monday, April 21, 2008

Sonny's Theme

The following appeared in the Outlook magazine of the Sunday Gleaner April 20

In the 1950s, the Sonny Bradshaw Seven were famous not only for their dexterity as big band performers, but also because their creator - Bradshaw himself - arranged their productions to sound just like the 14-piece big bands of the day.

Now, almost 60 years in the business, Sonny Bradshaw is a musical genius who taught himself to read music and play the trumpet - all coming out of a love of knowing how things work and how they were put together.

As a child growing up in Kingston, he would visit the junior library downtown to get the latest issue of Popular Mechanics, out of which he learnt to make his own radio and listen to the new music that was not yet popular on the island. He was later to integrate these new sounds into the repertoire of his band, and attract an increasingly large following because of it.

On March 28, Bradshaw celebrated his 81st birthday in London, having a grand old time with wife, jazz singer Myrna Hague, and dear friend old Andy Hamilton, (90 and just awarded his MBE - Member of the Order of the British Empire) who celebrated his 'earth day' around the same time. Bradshaw took his trumpet with him.

Frequent interruptions

"There is nothing to do but keep playing," the veteran musician told Outlook in this March interview. The frequent interruptions from the telephone were answered with his greeting "Sonny in Jamaica, 2008." Bradshaw is so happy to be alive and doing what he loves best - organising the jazz summer season in Jamaica - that his ebullience infects everything he does.

He jokes frequently about death and declares that he no longer celebrates birthdays and, in fact, was stuck for many years at age 60.

The entry to his home in Kingston is through his music studios, which also function as archives for a collection of trumpets, other musical instruments, the memorabilia of 60 years, and piles of sheet music. He uses a computer to play the tunes which lubricate his thoughts and also to track his favourite talk shows.

"I want to keep up with the thinking. In my young days you had people called 'warners' on the street corners, who would say that the world is coming to an end. What I discover is that the world you live in comes to an end and a new one comes again."

The world into which Bradshaw was born was one of clattering trams and horses ridden proudly, by those who owned them, through streets of post-world war Kingston. He was the only child for dad, Edgar Bradshaw, and mother Gladys, until his sister Marion was born when he was 20.

Sonny was sent to the Central Branch Conservatorium and then to Kingston Technical High School on Hanover Street. He was not lucky enough, he said, to go to Alpha where boys were taught music. "I was an outsider."

He was an outsider, but he loved to read. Every day he would visit the library with friend Horace Galbraith, where they would read any new detective novel available and then move on to their favourite magazine - Popular Mechanics. They would also devour any other books that had electronics in it. Soon, the friends started experimenting in making their own radios, creating instruments which allowed them to listen to broadcasts outside of Jamaica, including Cuban stations and the BBC. It was the music, however, which they loved.

His first trumpet

Sonny left Kingston Technical to work at Montaque's Musique on Tower Street. He was happy to be among the instrument every day, but he also wanted to play. Acquiring his first trumpet (it was the instrument he could get and the one he came to love), Sonny says his first big break came through Roy White, a teacher at Kingston Technical, and whose band rehearsed on Beeston Street.

"We all used to go and listen. My father asked him for a spot for me and I got it."

But, Sonny did not stay too long.

"You know ... when you are young and they are playing old music."

White's band was playing Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Bradshaw wanted to blow to the music of Henry James.

It was impresario Eric Deans who provided him with the opportunity he wanted, when he invited Bradshaw to join his band comprised of 90 per cent Alpha boys "who could all read music very well". But Bradshaw could read it as well. He had taught himself. He was also hearing music on the radio that the Alpha-ites knew nothing about.

He left in 1950 when he formed the first Sonny Bradshaw Seven, which rapidly earned fame based on its improbable 14-piece sound. Bradshaw had also found his legs as a talented arranger.

Among the first group was trombonist Herman Wilson, Lloyd Adam on piano, Carl Stephen on upright bass, a drummer called Goldson, and singer Winston Tate. Sister Ignatius from Alpha gave the group a saxophonist - Joe Harriot - who would later go on to become an international great.

The Seven got their first break when they were invited to take the midnight slot at Forrester's Hall in Kingston. Bradshaw, from that moment until today, became known as the 'Progressive Jazz Man'. The music in Jamaica was changing and he merrily massaged it along.

Dressed in their white suits and red beret, the Sonny Bradshaw Seven were playing difficult music which was not being played by older bands on the road, and also travelled abroad with their avant-garde arrangements to Canada, South America, Central America and the wider Caribbean, later accompanying big names like Tommy Mathis, Lou Rawls and Sam Cooke.

They did tours on behalf of the Jamaica Tourist Board and travelled to Cayman, Canada, the United States and Mexico.

"Tourism was good for the Sonny Bradshaw Seven," Sonny declares. Many weekends were also spent in Montego Bay playing.

While the band evolved, Bradshaw was also engaged in transforming attitudes towards music in Jamaica.

Good profession

"Parents did not want their children involved in entertainment. They wanted them to get a good profession. I think I may have been a part of changing that," he reflects.

"We turned the band into a business so that we could live, and live well. In the early days, we used to ride our bicycle, then we got a car and then a bus."

Later, it was not only their businesslike example which made a difference. Bradshaw was also involved in the Performing Rights Society (known today as intellectual property). Truthfully, on almost anything to do with music, including the new Jamaica School of Music, he was involved.

Bradshaw was the Jamaica Federation of Musicians president who reduced the playing time of big bands from an exhausting eight hours to four hours for each engagement.

With his band mates he also initiated the school band competition featuring trumpets, saxophones, flute, mouth organ and anything that could be played.

Sonny Bradshaw was also instrumental in popularising indigenous music, first through his Teenage Dance Party aired in the 1970s on JBC Radio.

"I played mostly Jamaican music. I was the person who opened the door. RJR, back then, was playing the top 40 from America. I introduced the Jamaica Hit Parade."

He also started the Tastee Talent Competition in Cross Roads - a fact which most seem to have forgotten.

Jamaican music took over, he said, and jazz fell by the way. To make up for this, Bradshaw and his wife, Myrna Hague, have - in the last two decades - run a summer jazz festival in Ocho Rios.

The show was started 18 years ago when, as Bradshaw says, jazz was getting a beating. When his wife said to him one day, 'why don't we have a jazz festival?', they together arranged an event for Father's Day.

It was well received and expanded into a three-day event. The annual show is now an eight-day event in the Garden Parish.

Bradshaw, admitting to how influential he was in the music, says he blames himself for dancehall. "It shouldn't have gone that way."

But, he makes himself content, as he states, "The world goes right around and comes back. After dancehall, it will go into something else."

New jazz artistes, he states, are unknown because the radio never plays them. But with 21 radio stations in existence, he still holds out hope.

Writing music remains Bradshaw's real passion.

"I can write down anything I hear or can think up," says the man who created the controversial 'big bands' version of the National Anthem.

He keeps writing and playing and, at home and on the road, wife Myrna is his right hand, as she is his.


Bradshaw's children are Karen Hall-Bradshaw, who works with Air Jamaica, and son Carey Bradshaw, who lives in New York, working in information technology. Daughter Bridgette Bradshaw was executed by a boyfriend who killed himself . His very first child, Christian, died of natural causes long ago.

Among his children and nine grandchildren, Bradshaw complains, "Nobody is playing anything."

But, he has other 'sons', including trumpet player and singer Mussi Richards, trumpeter Dean Fraser, who lived in his young years with the Bradshaw family when his mom migrated, Desi Jones, who started out as a conga man, and Willie Lindo.

Bradshaw lives every day for music and the company of Myrna. "The music keeps us going."

The doctor has told him, he said, that there is water in his heart. But there is nothing wrong with his mouth and so he keeps playing.

"I have not lost my teeth. They seem to be holding up."

He will continue playing the trumpet as long as he can, and when that is gone, he will play piano for his wife, who he describes as among the greatest of jazz singers and who tours with him as her piano player.

"The only time we'll stop is when we drop down," Bradshaw declares

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