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Meet John Michael Bradford

Today we’d like to introduce you to John Michael Bradford.

So, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
My musical story begins similar to the account Miles Davis gave in his autobiography, Miles. Miles wrote about a tornado that touched down near his hometown. He said, “I do believe in mystery and the supernatural and a tornado sure enough is mysterious and supernatural.” He went on to contemplate that the tornado left behind some of its strong winds for him to play trumpet. When I read that account, I understood where Miles was coming from because even as a boy, I made a connection between the winds of Hurricane Katrina and my ability to immediately have a big sound on the trumpet. My story can never be separated from that storm because it’s where my heart was set on fire to play music as a career.

The day before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, one of the people to evacuate with my family was a New Orleans trombone player, Sam Williams of Big Sam’s Funky Nation. He ended up living with us in San Antonio, Texas. During that time, I fell in love with the big sound of Sam’s trombone and his CD. I started pretending to play trombone and would walk around singing all of the licks I’d heard on Sam’s songs. One night as Sam was playing When the Saints Go Marching In, I started crying, and I told my mom that I knew I was supposed to be a New Orleans musician.

After evacuation, I begged my parents for a trombone. They couldn’t afford one, but I kept asking. My grandfather eventually gave me his old high school trumpet. The minute I put the horn to my lips, I was able to play a nice big note. By the end of that first week, I taught myself to play, a New Orleans staple, Second Line. From there, I ended up in a free Saturday program at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Park where older musicians would play and sing songs, and us kids would play back and sing what we heard. The program was only once a week for an hour. I was hungry for more, and because I caught on so quickly, a tuba player from the Jazz Park invited me to join him and the older musicians out at Jackson Square. The music we played was Traditional New Orleans music and New Orleans street funk. It wasn’t long before I started making money playing trumpet and singing. By the age of ten, I had purchased my own professional trumpet from playing on the streets and at gigs around the city.

Playing out at Jackson Square and on the streets was a very valuable education. It prepared me to play under pressure and with no rehearsal. I recall a time in ninth grade when I played a sold out show at Carnegie Hall with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The trumpet player for Preservation Hall was late getting to the stage for the last song. Everyone on stage was looking around for him. This was a scene right out of Jackson Square; I didn’t give it a second thought. I started the band off with the usual trumpet lead in as if we had rehearsed it that way. Even though I was on a big stage in front of a large crowd, it was as if I was just out at the Square with the older guys.

Along with my playing music out at Jackson Square, I was also involved in many music programs and camps around the city and out of state. One of my fondest memories of camp days was during a final performance. Ms. Norman Miller, who was a friend of and performer with Louis Armstrong, said that she knew who the next Louis Armstrong was, and she was talking about me. I would never put myself on his level, but encouragement like this has helped me to keep reaching for my dreams.

I was also fortunate enough to have so many New Orleans legends and masters of music as mentors. People like Donald Harrison, Nicholas Payton, Christian Scott, Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, Sean Jones, Terence Blanchard, Treme Brass Band, Preservation Hall Band, (too many to name) took me under their wing. There is no way I can repay all of these men and women for taking me under their wing.

Since I was a small boy I have been gigging, traveling, and sharing the stage with the greats and have also been a leader of my own bands doing different genres of music. I worked hard to win many prestigious competitions and to be selected, by invitation only, for programs created for those students who show exceptional talent and promise. Some of these programs include the Seeking Satchmo Competition; Young Arts Finalist in Jazz; Grammy Band; Vail Jazz All Stars; Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute; etc. Upon Graduating high school from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, I was awarded a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music and also Julliard.

During Christmas Break of my freshman year at Berklee College of Music, I recorded my debut album, Something old Something New, which was nominated by Off Beat Magazine for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. Since then, I have released a few singles that have either been recorded live on stage or from my bedroom. They can be found on all streams. I just recently released a little single, Quarantined in New Orleans, built on a drumbeat that was sent to me by a friend from Berklee. I looped that as a foundation for the song. I’ve also been doing a lot of arranging and recording for other people, which has been a lot of fun. My focus has mainly been trumpet, but I’m looking to do a lot more with my singing and I’m working hard on piano and bass. Before Corona showed up, I was in LA gigging, recording for film, writing/recording music, teaching lessons, and recently I was on set for Reno 911 playing lead for a brass band on a hilarious second line scene.

Even though I was well established in New Orleans, one of my mentors at Berklee said that I should check out LA. I took his advice, and that’s how I ended up here instead of back in New Orleans. Outside of doing my own projects and gigs, there are artists here in LA who I would really love to work and possibly tour with.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I think the biggest struggle came when I left New Orleans and went off to college in Boston. I think if you’re not careful, it’s easy to lose yourself and your roots when you move away from home. When I went to Boston, I put my career on hold. I was well known in New Orleans having played there for years. I played every New Orleans Jazz Fest from the time I picked up the horn. The year I graduated from high school, I had two sets under my name doing two completely different styles of music. I had already played overseas many times in places such as the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland with Terrance Blanchard, Cuba representing the Louis Armstrong Camp, Japan with Donald Harrison’s Tipitina’s Interns, and Bern, Switzerland with a band called New Legacy. I had already been to Switzerland six times playing gigs. The summer I graduated from high school, I was a featured artist at the Ascona Jazz Fest in Ascona, Switzerland and was invited back as a featured artist the following year.

Before college, it was normal to gig all the time while in school and to be able to play my trumpet any time I wanted. I didn’t stop gigging or playing my horn once I got to Boston, but it was a whole different scene and vibe. I found myself feeling like I couldn’t be myself in the way I played. I felt guarded instead of free like I did in New Orleans. I was still doing gigs, but my focus became spread out, and living off campus in an apartment made it harder to practice the way I wanted to. I started practicing with a mute to keep the noise level down which is something I’d never done at home. It was a real adjustment.

Brass is everything in New Orleans, but it is viewed as an accessory in many other places. That is a struggle, but I always fall back on what my mentor Donald Harrison told me, “Music is the star.” So I have learned to appreciate the struggle of not having people think of the trumpet as a vital part of the song, realizing that even if my instrument isn’t the main force of a piece, my job is to make the music shine. I’ve even found myself writing pieces now that don’t necessarily focus on the trumpet. I think through the struggle, I’ve grown up a little; but make no mistake, I strive every day to be best me that I can be on the trumpet and to honor my mentors and those who have gone before me. I’m standing on big shoulders, and I don’t take that lightly.

Deciding what music to focus on has been a struggle in the sense that everyone wants to put you in a box and say, “He’s this or that.” I want to do it all. No walls. My identity will always be New Orleans; that’s the only constant. I want to influence the world with the feel and joy of New Orleans just like Louis Armstrong did. The real struggle now is the Corona Virus, staying healthy, and how to survive financially as a full-time musician. Since all of my gigs have been canceled or pushed into the distant and uncertain future, I decided that it was best to Quarantine back in New Orleans.

Having been a California resident for just a few months, and having graduated from college just before moving to LA has created a difficult situation in receiving help from the government. Rent’s still due on a house that I can’t even live in; bills still have to be paid; my car is still in LA; but I’m blessed. I have my health, my family, my trumpet, my voice, and the music never goes away. Music is where my passion is; that’s where I want to spend my time and energy. I trust that God did not give me my talent and passion for music during our nation’s biggest natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, just to take it away with a worldwide pandemic. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but somehow, God will make a way. I’m hurting for all of my brothers and sisters who are suffering during this time. As long as today is still today, don’t give up on your dreams and future. Music is essential.

Do you feel like our city is a good place for businesses like yours? If someone was just starting out, would you recommend them starting out here? If not, what can our city do to improve?
As for LA, I think it’s a great city. Very different from Boston and New Orleans, but great in its own way. I fell in love with it when I came out here for Grammy Band. I love the weather, the food, the mountain views, and the good people I’ve been fortunate enough to surround myself with. If you’re going come to a big city like LA, you need a plan. Start out by building your network before you move and discover what opportunities are there for you. As I’ve already said, I’m temporarily back home in New Orleans because of the Corona Virus, but I’ll be back as soon as I can. I’m still available for remote work and lessons. When I was in LA, I was playing all types of music, in all types of settings; recording with some amazing musicians; writing and arranging music and collaborating on songs, working on producing, and teaching lessons. Just before the Virus struck, I had secured a residency with my band, John Michael and the Vibe, and in February I recorded a scene playing a New Orleans dirge for a hilarious second-line funeral with Reno 911 which is out now. One thing the city could do to help musicians out to pay the musicians what they deserve to make, and not make them pay to play. I would also get rid of the new AB5 law because it affects independent contractors.

What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
Recording my debut album during my freshman year at Berklee College of Music was a really proud moment for me. The album is called “Something old Something New”, and was nominated by Off Beat Magazine for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. This record pays homage to my mentors and those who came before me. “Something Old” is a tribute to New Orleans music and includes artists such as Chris Severin, Donald Harrison, Joe Dyson, Rickie Monie, Benny Jones, Sam Williams, Detroit Brooks, and many more. “Something New” is a representation of the music I have written and the musical future in to which these important mentorships have transported my sound. This record means so much to me because all of my mentors, teachers, and friends are a part of this project. The music is authentic and pure because it’s coming from the source. Being able to record with New Orleans masters is humbling and it pushes me and the music forward. The album is a culmination of mentors and friends who have guided me throughout my journey.

Pricing:

  • Virtual Trumpet Lessons – $60 an hour

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Ariff Daniel, Abi Kim, Collin Keller, Alyssa Wyle

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