Back in 1953 the jazz scene in Los Angeles was thriving. Though bebop pioneers Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charles Mingus had already split for New York, musicians like Wardell Gray, Frank Morgan, Teddy Edwards, Art Farmer, and Hampton Hawes were still tearing it up in the clubs along Central Avenue. At the same time, a 19-year-old cornetist fresh off the bus from Dallas was unwittingly laying the foundations for one of the greatest revolutions in jazz history: the birth of free jazz. Bobby Bradford had met Fort Worth native Ornette Coleman a few years earlier back in Texas, but it wasn’t until he ran into the alto saxophonist on an LA streetcar that they began playing together. If Bradford hadn’t been drafted into the air force the following year, there’s good reason to believe that he, not the late Don Cherry, would have served as Coleman’s longtime foil.

Bradford’s four-year stint in the military wasn’t his only missed opportunity with Coleman. In 1960 Coleman requested his presence in New York to record what was to be the epochal Free Jazz album, but Bradford, only a week away from his college finals, declined, and Freddie Hubbard took his spot. Bradford, one of the most strikingly original and melodic horn players in the last four decades, doesn’t dwell on such setbacks. In fact, if he’d stuck it out with Coleman he would never have entered into his longest and most meaningful musical relationship: his collaboration with the late clarinetist John Carter.

Bradford, 64, started playing cornet at age 14, trading a new Bulova watch he’d bought with money earned from his paper route for a cheap Silvertone he’d heard the owner of a local shoe shop playing. “He said to me, ‘Go over there and ask your father if you can do this, because I don’t want to get in trouble,'” recalls Bradford. “I didn’t ask my dad, I just ran over to him, turned around, and came back and said, ‘Sure, it’s OK.’ It was in god-awful condition, but I started in on it right away.” By the following fall he’d joined the high school marching band. He quickly became obsessed with bebop, as were several others in the band: longtime Ray Charles tenorist David “Fathead” Newman, pianist Cedar Walton, and tenor saxist James Clay.

After graduation, in 1952, Bradford attended Sam Houston State Teachers College in Austin for a year and a half, but smitten with jazz and frustrated by the lack of a scene in Texas, he went to LA, where his mother had moved after divorcing his father. He entered the military, but his service was confined mainly to playing in the band. By the time he was discharged, in 1958, he was married with two kids. He decided to finish his degree at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was studying when Coleman called in 1960. Coleman called again the following summer, and since Bradford was short on tuition money, he took him up on his offer. He played in Coleman’s group between 1961 and ’63, returning to Texas during long breaks. When Coleman decided to boycott New York clubs to extract greater performance fees, Bradford split for good, returning to Austin and earning a degree in music education.

In 1964, after teaching public school for a year, Bradford moved his family to LA. Not long after arriving he met Carter, another Coleman associate from Fort Worth. Together they formed the New Art Jazz Ensemble, a less jarring version of Coleman’s quartet. Though the group made four critically acclaimed albums in the late 60s and early 70s, the band never made much of a splash outside LA. Both Carter and Bradford were family men and used teaching to pay the bills. The noted jazz producer Bob Thiele told them they needed to move to New York to make it. “John and I talked about it, and we both came to the conclusion that we weren’t going to pack our bags. We were going to tough it out.”

Bradford spent most of 1971 playing in England on the invitation of drummer John Stevens. When he returned to California, Carter, who had played alto and tenor sax as well as flute and clarinet, had decided to concentrate exclusively on the clarinet, his original instrument. “I was disappointed at first because I loved his saxophone playing, but I got over it in about ten minutes,” says Bradford. Carter quickly developed a highly personal voice on the neglected instrument, paving the way for musicians like Don Byron, Ben Goldberg, and Ab Baars. Bradford and Carter played together regularly throughout the 70s around the U.S. and in Europe, though they didn’t begin to make records again with any frequency until 1979. Over the next 12 years they made eight albums together, including the five that form Carter’s brilliant suite, “Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music.”

Their music had finally attracted attention to match its critical acclaim, but in 1991 Carter died suddenly from lung cancer. “The big problem with John’s death wasn’t about the music,” says Bradford. “He was such a longtime friend–that was the hardest thing to deal with. It was horrible. There were periods where I would wake up and think of calling John to discuss some idea I had, and then I realized there was no John to call.” Since Carter’s death Bradford has only appeared on one recording, the David Murray Quartet’s Death of a Sideman from 1992, for which he composed the beautiful album-length suite. But he’s continued to play, usually with younger cutting-edge players like Vinny Golia and Nels Cline, while teaching music at southern California’s Claremont Colleges. His upcoming date at the Empty Bottle marks the first time Bradford has played here since 1987, when he performed at the Chicago Jazz Festival with Carter. He’ll be playing his original compositions–bluesy, melodically dense, and rhythmically rigorous postbop tunes–with bassist Harrison Bankhead, drummer Chad Taylor, and tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson.

“I feel like somehow I’m still going to figure out a way to make a living from playing,” Bradford says. “Sometimes foolishly you keep telling yourself that you’ll get organized, and then things will get going, like having one last piece of cake before you start a diet. But I still love playing like I did right at the very beginning.”

The Bobby Bradford Group featuring Fred Anderson plays Wednesday at 9 at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western. Admission is $7. Call 773-276-3600 for more info. –Peter Margasak

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Davis Barber.