Sonny Bradshaw: Trumpeter and bandleader who dominated the Jamaican jazz scene
Wednesday 30 December 2009
Sonny Bradshaw was one of Jamaica's best-loved jazz musicians. Feted as an innovative bandleader and arranger who helped propagate jazz on the island, he also promoted indigenous forms of Jamaican music and campaigned for the rights of local musicians.
Born and raised in Kingston, the young Bradshaw was an avid reader with insatiable curiosity. Exposed to the piano at 10, he taught himself to read music by studying copies of Metronome magazine in the library, while access to Popular Mechanics enabled him to build a radio, exposing him to a variety of musical styles, of which jazz was the most inspirational.
Upon graduation Bradshaw attempted to join the RAF but was rejected for being under-age. A former teacher helped him gain employment at Montague's Music and Novelty store, the only outlet in Jamaica for sheet music; Bradshaw acquired a trumpet from his father and it soon became his preferred instrument; the European classical music he was exposed to on a daily basis at Montague's also brought greater depth to his budding jazz techniques.
Following the intervention of his father, Bradshaw briefly became third trumpeter in the Jump Sultans Orchestra led by his former woodwork teacher, the political activist Roy White, but he did not remain long as they preferred material by Count Basie and Duke Ellington, while he hankered for the new guard of swing, as represented by the trumpeter Harry James. He became a member of Roy Coburn's band but left, frustrated by Coburn's reliance on standard arrangements, as he had already developed arranging skills of his own, mastering additional instruments such as bass, saxophone, trombone and flugelhorn. Things stepped up a notch when he joined The Eric Dean Orchestra, Jamaica's most prestigious swing band, with whom he stayed for much of the late 1940s.
In 1950, Bradshaw became the island's youngest bandleader, forming the Sonny Bradshaw Seven (patterned after the Johnny Dankworth Seven), with pianist Lloyd Adams, trombonist Herman Wilson, bassist Carl Stephens, singer Winston Tate, a drummer called Goldson and saxophonist Joe Harriott, the latter drafted from the legendary Alpha Boys School before his graduation; the band's brand of bebop and swing was immediately successful, garnering sponsorship from Coca Cola for Sunday matinees at the Carib Theatre.
In 1952, Bradshaw launched a monthly music magazine, The Music Sheet. Two years later, he and Lloyd Adams staged the first large-scale jazz gala at the Carib, with concerts held there annually for the next few years. In 1956 he also formed an All-Star band with saxophonists Tommy McCook and Wilton "Bogie" Gaynair to support Sarah Vaughan on her Jamaican dates (the first time local musicians had backed a foreign artist), and later backed Johnny Mathis, Brook Benton, Trinidad's Mighty Sparrow and jazz drummer Johnny Rae on their local engagements.
In 1959, when the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) established a radio station, Bradshaw was part of the in-house orchestra and launched the popular afternoon programme Teenage Dance Party as a showcase for local talent; with the launch of JBC television in 1963, a filmed version brought live music to Jamaica's TV screens, with Bradshaw's quartet as the mainstays until industrial action the following year led to his dismissal.
Although he continued to play on the hotel circuit and briefly managed popular bands such as the Sharks, Bradshaw became more active in social and civic duties, especially relating to musicians' rights. He was an active force in the Jamaican Musicians' Federation for over 25 years, its President for 14, initiating the Music Copyright Act and launching the annual Tastee Talent Contest in 1974.
During the mid-1970s and early '80s, the Sonny Bradshaw Seven enjoyed a resurgence with a younger set of talented musicians alongside seasoned veterans. In 1991, Bradshaw founded the Ocho Rios Jazz Festival, held annually since, while in recent years, he and his wife, the Jamaican jazz vocalist and actress, Myrna Hague, travelled annually to the UK to perform with saxophonist Andy Hamilton, a lifelong friend. Bradshaw also contributed the "Musicman" column to Jamaica's Star newspaper. Of the many civic awards he received, the most distinguished was the Order of Distinction, granted by the Jamaican government in recognition of his contributions to music.
Cecil "Sonny" Bradshaw, musician, composer, promoter, journalist and campaigner: born Kingston, Jamaica 1926; married Myrna Hague (one son, one daughter, and one son and one daughter deceased); died Romford, Essex 10 October 2009.
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