The year 2020. No one could have envisioned what it had in store when it arrived, but oh boy, most of us the world over are looking forward to seeing it leave. However, it won’t matter if we earnestly move into 2021 and change hasn’t begun to happen – If we’re not wiser, more knowledgeable and involved. If we’re not more caring and respectful of one another. If ultimately we don’t come out of this better or stronger. That is what adversity is capable of doing. Some might argue or testify that is the reason for it.
Like most of us, revered and accomplished trombonist, producer, artist Jeff Bradshaw didn’t know of course what the year would bring either. But he’s for sure had experience with being blindsided by a tumultuous, life altering event. In 2016, as he’s shared in the time since, the proud North Philly native was diagnosed with the very painful and serious condition, diverticulitis. It was without warning and in the midst of some exciting, successful and crucial times for this in demand musician whose impressive and long list of credits include work with Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind & Fire, Patti Labelle, Jay Z, Mary J Blige, Erykah Badu, The Roots, Kirk Franklin, Common, and many more. Referencing the challenging times we’re currently in the midst of he notes, “I can say that because of what I’ve been through that I was spiritually and mentally prepared for this ‘season’ in our world.” But he admits, “I don’t think anybody can say, ‘oh yeah I was ready for this.’ In my lifetime, I’ve never seen anything like this. So I can’t say I was ready for it, but I can say I was spiritually and emotionally prepared to be able to handle something like this.”
His personal experience, in great part, encouraged the title of his new project being aptly called, Stronger, a super impressive collection of tracks and assembly of premier guests that include Chrsitian McBride, Conya Doss, Amber Jeanne [Moonchild], Frank McComb, Robert Glasper, Glenn Lewis, Jazzy Jeff, Micki Miller, Lin Rountree, Marqueal Gordon and more. As Bradshaw shares, the title does speak to how he genuinely feels about himself as an artist at this point in his career. “ As an artist, writer, producer, I am stronger. This is the strongest music I’ve put out, my best playing, my best producing, my best writing. I feel like this is stronger than any work that I’ve ever put out.”
That is a pretty strong statement from someone who from the drop of his acclaimed debut, Bone Deep in 2003, has consistently offered up gems. However, his assessment does have great merit with just about every track on Stronger worthy of singular distinction let alone put together for one seamless, enjoyable, collection which includes singles released earlier from the album like the soulful “Prototype” featuring Raheem Devaughn and “I Do ( Sincerely)” featuring the sultry vocals of Marsha Ambrosius. Having premier guests has definitely been a hallmark of Bradshaw’s projects and help make Stronger exactly that. And how does he come to tap all this talent? “It’s crazy,” he laughs. “First of all they’re all my friends, which makes it awesome for me because my friends respect what I do. Because this is what we do for a living, for my friends to respect, and be fans of mine the way that I am fans of theirs, and for them to join my journey and help me show the world that a trombone player can be the artist, the lead instrument on jazz and soul music, it’s so humbling man. I’m so blessed. I’m blessed to have the people that I’ve been able to work with.”
“I think that no matter where we are in life, it’s really important to always tell people that you love them. Let your friends know you love them and you appreciate them. Let family know that you love and appreciate them.” – Jeff Bradshaw
But Stronger with songs boasting titles like “Gratitude”, “Euphoria,” “Butterfly”, and “Celebrate,” indeed speaks just as much to the person he is now because of what he’s gone through and the lessons learned. Needless to say, that event presented very scary times, and grand uncertainty for the future. “At the time, I didn’t have health insurance,” admits Bradshaw. “So I spent every dime I had on health care. Was paying out of pocket. I couldn’t work and it was a really tough time for me.” Several things emerged as key elements Bradshaw would have to give into and accept that along with his faith would enable him to rise out of his quandary and ultimately, yes, make him a stronger person for it. “People, like one of my good brothers, Charles Whitfield [music industry sage], got the word out and let Jill [vocalist, collaborator and friend, Jill Scott] know what was going on and Jill had launched a GoFundMe page for me, which I was completely against, because I was embarrassed. I didn’t want the world to know.” Bradshaw goes on to explain, “Being sick is one thing. But then to lose everything I had and to need to ask for help was a humbling moment for me.” He then shares an equally moving moment. “Jill said, when I told her how I felt about the GoFundMe page, she said ‘Let people love on you. You have given so much of yourself, now twenty -seven years, so much of yourself to the music industry and the road and shared your love of music with people all over the world. Touring, live on stage. Now allow people to love on you.” Those words made the help something he could then accept.
The genuine outpouring of love through GoFundMe, a benefit concert given by many of his musical friends and more work than he’s ever had in the four years since have not only enabled him to get back on his feet, it now has him standing stronger than ever. “ I’m a baptized believer in christ and I believe that the ultimate power in this world is love. The ultimate power in this world I believe is God,” Bradshaw passionately asserts. “You don’t really know what you’re made of until you go down. When go down spiritually, emotionally, financially – You’ve lost some form of dignity. There’s something about being all the way down and the world watch you struggle. When the world watches you go all the way down and then you experience the love. He then acknowledges, “I know that people say that we live in an evil world, and we do. But there’s some love in this world that I’ve truly experienced and I believe that when God touches the heart of people and people embrace you and come to your aid when you’re at you lowest point and you take that spirit and go in the studio and record an album, it has to be stronger. I am definitely stronger. That’s why I’m stronger because I was embraced and lifted by the love of many and the love of God. That’s why I’m stronger.”
So certainly, Jeff Bradshaw has legitimate reason to feel or be stronger, but let’s be clear, he long ago established himself a substantial talent on the music scene. On the trombone, an instrument relative to several others not often associated with being out front or toiling in the mainstream music realm, Bradshaw has had great success doing both. There are influences that showed him he could, “I was born and raised in a church where gospel brass bands are the feature and the music ministry so I’ve been surrounded by trombone players and brass music my entire life,” says Bradshaw. “My father was a multi -brass instrumentalist. His main ax was trombone. I watched him play and he was so great at it. Those are the two reasons I play trombone.” Another who helped shatter perceived limitations? “Fred Wesley, who is my distant mentor and a great man. As an arranger for James Brown, for so many songs and as an individual player and soloist. He is just an amazing, amazing human being” He recalls fondly often being told early on, “Man, man you sound like Fred. Anybody tell you, ‘you sound like Fred Wesley?’” Certainly those examples instilled great confidence to forge ahead on his instrument unbridled by perception. As a result, he aptly counts himself as leading the trombone charge in mainstream music along with players like acclaimed contemporary, trombonist Trombone Shorty, who’s featured on another standout track from the project, “War and Thunder.” “We’re in parallel universes,” Bradshaw says of the two of them. “There are many of us out here recording great music.” as he mentions Big Sam Williams and Saunders Sermon as other very talented “bone” players reppin’ as leaders on the scene.
“If we want things to change, one you have to change people’s hearts. If you can touch people’s hearts you can reach their minds. But you’ve got to touch their hearts first. So I believe that through music we can touch people’s hearts. And then through their hearts we can have an open-minded discussion about ending racism, about white privilege, about racism in the police force, in corporate America and in the music industry.” – Jeff Bradshaw
Jeff Bradshaw has also recently used his trombone with that same spirit of no limitations and passion contributing his voice to an atrocity not inherent to the year 2020 or an effect of the pandemic itself. Seeing as many of us did repeatedly on screens of every size, an image that will forever be etched in our minds, he was moved both literally and needless to say, emotionally. “8:46, that number is what really got me off the couch. I was like, okay I have to do something,” recalls Bradshaw. “Watching George Floyd, watching his life leave his body, the way it did, as callas as and as evil as it left his body. I said, I have to get off the couch. I said, I want to do something. I need to get in the streets and do something.”
It started first with him making a call to ask if he could play the Black national anthem, Lift Every Voice And Sing, before a planned march in Philadelphia. “It was beautiful hearing all of those thousands of people sing. It was amazing! And after that march, I came home and sat on my couch and I was just like, ‘That’s not enough. I need to do more.’” The answer to what that would be came divinely delivered in a dream. “God showed me a vision of myself on the steps of the museum [in Philadelphia] which everyone affectionately knows as the [movie] Rocky steps,” remembers Bradshaw. “In the dream, I was on the steps of the art museum and I was surrounded by horns as far as the eye can see. And when I woke up that morning, I was like,’ That’s it! I got it! I got it! I’m going to bring specifically, horn players together and we’re going to protest through music.” He called up a good friend, Randy Robinson, explained his vision and told him he needed a name for it. A Clarion Call For Justice was the response. “And I was like, wow, right out of the bible. Awesome!,” Bradshaw fondly remembers. With the help of another good friend, tuba and trombone player, Sam Gellerstein, they put the call out to horn players they knew and didn’t know through social media and phones call to meet at those “Rocky” steps. And as Bradshaw declared, “Let’s play music to the high heavens and try to touch people.” The idea was a success that lead to four more times at those steps, each time bringing more and more players, eventually bringing it to New York City’s Washington Square Park and the recently decreed Black Lives Matter Plaza in the nations’s capitol. “There were about seventy-five horns out there and we played to the high heavens and we celebrated the lives, but we also protested the unnecessary deaths.” Bradshaw proudly asserts, “Now I’m an artist and activist.” This is all yet another example of him coming out of a challenging time being more than he was and with the help of others turning adversity into strength.
Simply put, “I practice. I play hard. I am playing the best trombone I have ever played in my life, says Bradshaw. “The gift I have to play this instrument is at it’s best thus far because as musicians we’re always learning, we’re always in school, we’re always getting better. You never stop learning and you never stop growing.” And thus, the result for us all, if we follow suit, should be that we get, Stronger as well. BC
Get STRONGER on November, 6
but until then . . .
For more info and keep up with Jeff Bradshaw visit his site @ iamjeffbradshaw.com