In Memoriam: Jack Bradley, Photographer & Louis Armstrong Associate


Jack Bradley photographed many jazz stars. Louis Armstrong was his favorite.

(Photo: Russ Price)

Jack Bradley — photographer, sailor and associate of Louis Armstrong — passed away in March in Brewster, Massachusetts.

Born in Cotuit, Massachusetts, in 1934, Bradley discovered his two passions — boating and Louis Armstrong — thanks to a friend and father figure who opened up his home to Bradley, introducing him to Armstrong’s recordings on 78s. Little did young Jack realize the role that Armstrong would play in his life.

Bradley wore many hats over the years — photographer, road manager, manager, writer, booking agent, charter boat captain, nightclub manager, disc jockey, lecturer, concert producer and founder of the New York Jazz Museum and co-founder of the Cape Cod Jazz Society. He is remembered for his warmhearted crustiness, absolute honesty, ribald humor and ceaseless generosity.

A graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Bradley did a stint as a Merchant Marine before landing in Manhattan in 1959 with a camera around his neck. Through a girlfriend, Bradley met his idol, soon becoming like a son to the musical giant.

“The first time I visited his home in Corona, Queens, I was so nervous that I was shaking,” Bradley said of Armstrong. “Louis, though, had a way of putting you at ease. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Everything’s cool, man. We’re just two guys hanging out.’ Instantly my nerves vanished.”

For the next 12 years, Bradley attended hundreds of Armstrong concerts and recording sessions.

“I think Pops liked me because I never asked him for anything,” Bradley noted. “He had a lot of hangers-on always asking for bread — and Louis was generous to a fault. But for me, just hanging out with him was enough.”

Jack believed that Armstrong was the perfect subject for any photographer. “With that face and his beautiful smile, how could anyone take a bad shot?”

Soon an in-demand photographer, Bradley’s photographs of Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins and dozens of others are considered to be some of the finest jazz photographs ever taken. In fact, his photograph of Holiday in early 1959 is believed to be the very last picture of Lady Day taken in performance.

Jazz musicians loved Bradley for his humor — and his heart. His generosity was legendary. When the trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen died in the spring of 1967, Bradley immediately organized a benefit to bring in much-needed money for the Allen family. When trumpeter Bobby Hackett died in 1976, it was Bradley who raised the money for a headstone.

“When help is needed, Jack is always there,” remembered the late cornetist Ruby Braff.

After leaving Manhattan for Cape Cod in 1976, Bradley began a successful charter boat business, as well as co-founding the Cape Cod Jazz Society. Renowned jazz musicians such as Bobby Hackett and Braff also moved to the Cape after Bradley rhapsodized about the island’s many charms.

Driven by his love of jazz, Bradley founded a top-notch record store, Vintage Jazz, and produced his own jazz radio show on WFCC.

A voracious collector, he amassed more than 25,000 recordings (10,000 78s alone); over 200 hours of 16mm jazz films; over 10,000 pieces of sheet music; and thousands of photographs, books, magazines and paintings.

In 2005 he sold the Louis Armstrong section of his collection to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, nearly doubling the museum’s holdings. “I was paid a fair price,” he said at the time. “Plus, I now know that my collection will be taken good care of.”

When Bradley visited New York for the last time in February 2015, it was to see his superb photography exhibit at the Armstrong House Museum.

“It’s been said that ‘teachers affect eternity,’ and among Jack’s many skills was his ability to teach through his jazz photography, captivating lectures and producing concerts,” said legendary radio host Dick Golden. “Whenever I had the honor of having Jack as a radio guest, or in many personal encounters and phone conversations, when Jack spoke about his friend Satchmo, I always felt as if Louis Armstrong was in the room with us.”

Bradley is the subject of a soon-to-be-released documentary, Through My Lens: Classic Jazz Visions with Jack Bradley. DB

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