Walking into the dark, cool atmosphere of Jazz at the Bistro, a black-and-white photo of Ray Brown, circa 1948, greets guests. That’s where it all started for Gene Dobbs Bradford. “I tried to learn his bass lines, and tried to sound like him,” the double-bassist says with a wide smile. “Jazz doesn’t get much better than that.”
As a teenager, the Jazz St. Louis executive director relentlessly emulated ’40s and ’50s jazz greats like Brown. “I put my time in. I had band class first thing in the morning, and then I’d get home from school and practice,” Bradford explains in his baritone voice. “Bass is a demanding mistress. You don’t just leave her alone and expect to come back and everything is fine.”
That intense respect for his craft paid off, as he soon earned acceptance into the prestigious Eastman School of Music in New York. “It was one of my first college visits. I walked by a woodwind quintet playing, and it sounded just like it did on the record.” At that moment, Bradford knew he was in the right place. He went on to study with influential professor James Vandemark and earn a degree in double bass.
It also was during college that Bradford realized he enjoyed putting together concerts more than performing them. “You get to be more creative, get to choose what’s being played and get to have your own voice,” he notes. So following graduation, he went into orchestral management for symphonies including Baltimore, Cleveland and Honolulu, before becoming director of operations for St. Louis Symphony from 1994 to 1999.
Being on the management side of the music industry has allowed Bradford to tour the world, from the Americas to Europe and Asia. While overseeing the symphony shows, he likened himself to an “orchestra roadie,” making arrangements for the orchestra, from the stage setups to the hotels and bus schedules.
Bradford’s love of jazz and music management has now come full circle. Taking the helm of Jazz St. Louis 15 years ago, he’s right in the thick of things, booking some of the world’s best jazz artists to the Jazz at the Bistro stage. His goal for each new season is to offer an eclectic lineup, from performers such as legendary saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Dave Sanborn to iconic '80s actress Molly Ringwald, who recently launched her music career. Whether it's soul, funk, modern, avante-garde or straight-ahead jazz, patrons can hear the genre “the way jazz is meant to be experienced.” Bradford says everyone likes jazz, and if they don’t, “they just haven’t found a style that resonates with them.” The numbers back up his belief, as the subscription base has increased 40 percent since he took over in 1999.
Behind-the-scenes at the Bistro, Bradford is building even more connections through what they call “the hang.” Each night in the dimly lit backstage, he finds himself hanging with some of the jazz industry’s most notable names. “We talk in-between and after sets, and we get to know each other,” he muses. “That’s how I found out Terence Blanchard’s father was an opera singer.”
The casual conversation led to one of Bradford’s biggest collaborative triumphs: Champion. Blanchard, the acclaimed New Orleans native jazz trumpeter and composer, is a regular performer at Jazz at the Bistro. And Bradford knew Blanchard's film-scoring skills set, work with strings and love of opera would be the perfect combination for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production. “For this particular project, I just knew he had to be the one,” Bradford notes. With Blanchard and playwright Michael Cristofer on board, the Jazz St. Louis and Opera Theatre collaboration became an international hit, garnering praise from New York Times and Opera Today reviewers.
The collaboration is just one of many team efforts Bradford and Jazz St. Louis have been a part of with local arts organizations. The spirit of collaboration, particularly in Grand Center, continues to grow, he says. “My dream for St. Louis is that in 100 years, students will be sitting in a classroom studying this great St. Louis arts time period.”
And while Bradford’s musical acumen is vast, his talents extend beyond that scene. He earned an MBA from Washington University in 2008, and he has delved deeply into his passions for running and cooking. His love for running has led him to complete three half-marathons and a half Iron Man. “So I’m only half-crazy,” he jokes. Even in the winter months, 6-foot-4 Bradford can be seen running around his Webster Groves neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning.
Bradford also admits his passion for cooking runs so deep that there isn’t really room for his wife, Maria, in the kitchen. But she seems to like it that way, he says, as he specializes in preparing hearty stews, stocks, roasts and braised meats in the wintertime, and grilling light, fresh vegetables during the summer. “My daughter, Mireille, has been known to say, Daddy’s a good cook, and mommy’s good at heating things up,” he says, with a chuckle.
Whether it’s the kitchen or the stage, one thing is certain, Bradford seems to always know just the right recipe for success.