Jamaica’s Jazz Great, Sonny Bradshaw, is dead!

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Sonny Bradshaw, the 81-year-old Jamaican Jazz Master, is dead.

Sonny Bradshaw, Jazz Musician!

There is no doubt we have lost one of our great entrepreneurs, but it is people – dead or alive – from whom we take our cue. We have been trained to get a good education, and after that, go and beg a work. Sonny is one of those Jamaicans who have taken the entrepreneurial plunge many years ago, especially at time when the music business wasn’t really considered a business.

Today we mourn is passing, and in my research, I came across an article that was written by Tony Gambrill and was published in the Jamaica Observer some five months ago (Sunday, May 27, 2007), titled: SONY BRADSHAW IS 81 YOUNG, and is published here courtesy of the Jamaica Observer, and Mr. Gambrill, for those of us who might have missed it, but particularly, for those who never really knew the man.

Here goes:

Sonny Bradshaw is 81 years young

Shark-infested Jelly
By Tony Gambrill
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Jamaica Observer

If you ask Sonny Bradshaw why he is still organising jazz festivals at 8l years of age, he’ll probably reply “It’s all I know”.

Of course, that’s an understatement for a man whose curriculum vitae is about the size of the Kingston telephone directory. But it’s true in the sense that his dedication to the music goes back nearly sixty years to when he put together his first “big band”.

Sonny considers himself lucky to have started to take jazz seriously during the Golden Era of Alpha Boys’ School musical graduates whose names today are legend. Playing in clubs, concert halls and cinemas, these jazzmen and others were capable of drawing thousands in the middle of the last century. Some of them earned international recognition when they moved abroad; amongst their number were Joe Harriott, Dizzy Reece, Ernie Ranglin, “Little G” McNair and Monty Alexander.

Impresario Stephen Hill took the plunge in 1956 and persuaded Sarah Vaughn to stop in Jamaica on her way back from a South American tour. She was at the peak of her career, travelled with a trio including Roy Haynes who is still playing drums in his eighties, but was willing to try out a Jamaican orchestra to accompany her. Sonny remembers the experience as if it were yesterday. She arrived at the Globe Theatre on Deanery Road at 7 p.m. and asked the Bradshaw aggregation to run through the music she had selected.

She approved of most numbers, rejected a few, then announced “Be back by curtain time.” To which the musicians, still in awe of Miss Vaughn, replied they weren’t leaving the building. Stephen Hill’s confidence was rewarded – it was the first time that Jamaicans had backed a visiting artiste.

After that Sonny accompanied any number of foreign acts. The singer he remembers most vividly was Johnny Mathis who began a number in the wrong key. He stopped the band, apologised to the audience and began again. When the show ended he handed Sonny a ten- pound note with a “thanks”.

December ll, 1956, with my first Jamaican date in tow I took in a Sonny Bradshaw 20-piece big band concert at the original Carib cinema which at the time held around l,200 people. I can’t remember if the lady was impressed – her father wasn’t when I turned up in a taxi not being able to afford a car at that stage – but I was and I was hooked for good. It was a time when the finest trombone section played on the island: Carlos Malcolm, Don Drummond, Rico Rodrigues and Rupie Anderson.

Sheila Rickards, now in Los Angeles, and Totlyn Jackson, still singing in the UK, along with Buddy Ilgner shared the vocals. From the uptown Glass Bucket Club came Baba Motta and vibraphonist Lennie Hibbert and pianist Aubrey Adams took the night off from the Courtleigh Manor Hotel on Trafalgar Road. Even a future Minister of Finance, Seymour “Foggy” Mullings on piano took to the stage.

With the launching of the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation in l959, Bradshaw took time out to promote “jazzy” pop music as director of musical programmes. Teenage Dance Party with his quartet in attendance debuted “live” music on television and was enormously popular. He put in many years in the administration of the Jamaica Federation of Musicians, l4 of them as president. On his watch he set out to instill discipline in a traditionally unreliable industry and introduced innovations that raised the level of professionalism.
Sonny was twice on my theatrical scene, the first time inadvertently.

When hotelier John-Pierre Aubrey heard him playing at Ferry Inn in the mid-sixties he hired him for Jamaica’s original all-inclusive, Frenchman’s Cove in Port Antonio. It was at dinner one night that Dr. Jimmy Barton and myself first tried out our 8 O’Clock Jamaica Time material while the quartet took a break.

The guests were too busy eating and talking to hear us, but the band apparently had better luck.

It was at Frenchman’s Cove that Sonny came upon his lifelong preference for Chivas Regal whisky. Every evening at 4 p.m. with the other members of the group he left Kingston in his old Chevy, returning before midnight but frequently requiring a nap stop in Morant Bay. Having despaired of trying every known soft drink on Sonny to avoid drowsiness, the bartender at the hotel served him a wee Chivas Regal. It worked like a charm. In fact in subsequent years when he had had a medical, his doctor confirmed that it was right for him but, oh, the expense!

Sonny Bradshaw has always been a no-nonsense bandleader. I learnt this when he was hired for my musical “Paradise Street”. I watched him one night and noticed that every now and again he would point a finger accusingly at one of the musicians. For what purpose? Any time a wrong note was played the culprit was fined and he knew it.

A trim l49 pounds, Sonny is one fit octogenarian. He credits his wife Myrna Hague for making sure he enjoys his favourite dishes in moderation. He claims to do a little gardening and takes long walks when he is abroad. That’s his health, but what about the health of jazz?

Sonny says that after years of virtual neglect jazz has been making a comeback. The Jamaica School of Music has turned out pianists, keyboard players and guitarists but few if any in his discipline, the trumpet. Most front men are self-taught and Sonny himself deserves the credit for bringing along two of the best – Desi Jones and Dean Fraser. His upcoming Jazz Festival 2007 opens at Morgan’s Harbour on Sunday, June l0, with an attractive mix of local and foreign artistes and winds up at Shaw Park Beach Hotel on June l7. But what keeps Sonny ticking over? He just can’t help himself, he says, after l7 festivals. And we should thank him – and Myrna – for his obsession, and turn out in our numbers for this upcoming l7th edition.

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