Vail Jazz Alumni: Trumpeter believes he’s never hit high notes like those he found in Vail
Vail Jazz Workshop alumni John Michael Bradford set to return to Vail this summer for the Vail Jazz Gala
Over the last 25 years, nearly 300 teenage musicians have been transformed by the Vail Jazz Workshop; a large majority have gone on to become professional musicians. This is one of their stories.
The jazz world is a small place, according to John Michael Bradford. The trumpet player who grew up in a small town outside of New Orleans discovered this early on as he connected with one musician after another throughout his childhood, but the message echoed with resounding force when he attended the Vail Jazz Workshop in 2013. Here, he learned the importance of building relationships.
Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, when Bradford was a young boy. He and his family evacuated to San Antonio to share a house with friends and neighbors. Although this was a difficult, emotional time, it was when Bradford discovered his yearning to play an instrument.
One of the fellow evacuees to share the house in Texas was trombone player Sam Williams, to whom the young Bradford gravitated.
“Hurricane Katrina oddly led to exposure to a lot of different music for me,” Bradford said in a recent interview with Vail Jazz board member Wing Mayer. “I was listening to all [Sam’s] records and being exposed to funk music and people like Stevie Wonder and some of that stuff my parents were listening to. Once I met Sam, he inspired me to want to play music. I wanted to play trombone because that’s what he played.”
Bradford wasn’t able to get a trombone, so the trumpet it was.
“I begged for a trombone for about a year and a half and eventually my grandfather gave me his high school trumpet,” Bradford said. “I started playing the trumpet and going out to New Orleans and playing. I was meeting all these people and learning from them, learning from Donald Harrison, learning about bebop and you know, just getting as much musical variety as I could because New Orleans offers all types of music.”
In high school, the trumpeter attended New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. As he continued to seek and explore many types of music, his approach was simple. Either he liked it or he didn’t.
“What was good and what made me feel good expanded into all the things I’ve done and that expanded into me going to Vail and meeting all these people and getting to have workshops and learn from them,” he said. “I was exposed to a lot of good people at a young age.”
It was in Vail that Bradford, in addition to further developing his musical skills, cemented his talent for building relationships with good people — who happened to also be good musicians.
“Studying with Terell Stafford, studying with Jeff Clayton [Vail Jazz Workshop instructors], all these guys, that was amazing in itself. The people that were in the program were really well chosen. There was a great level of respect. I never felt uncomfortable,” Bradford said. “I felt that I was really growing all the time and learning a lot and that the teachers really cared about us and our development. The amount of time we spent with the teachers and playing music all day, well, it’s definitely one of the best things I’ve done.”
Since attending the Vail Jazz Workshop, Bradford has done great things. He’s performed at the Grammy Awards and at Carnegie Hall. He studies at the Berklee School of Music with fellow Vail Jazz alumni (circa 1996) Tia Fuller, with whom he developed a rapport during the grand finale of his workshop, the Vail Jazz Party.
When Bradford reflects on his Vail Jazz Workshop experience or listens to recordings of his performances from that time, he’s blown away by what he was able to accomplish.
“I think both the energy and the expectations for our excellence really set a high bar,” he said. “I’ll still go back to those recordings of our performances at Vail Jazz … that’s one of the best times I sounded. You have those moments in your life and those concerts you look back on. You’re like, man. You’re on such a high level you don’t even understand how it was possible. It just felt like magic.”
Bradford is set to join a selection of fellow Vail Jazz Workshop alumni to perform on July 6 at the Vail Jazz Gala at Larkspur Restaurant. Tickets and more information are available at vailjazz.org.