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  • Kirk Lightsey

THE NIGHTS OF BRADLEY’S


When I came from LA to New York in late 1979, Bradley’s was not my destination; the NY Playboy Club was, with bunnies and all that, for a 2 or 3 week gig with OC Smith. But Bradley’s was destined to become my musical home.


And earlier when I had seen Dexter Gordon with Rufus Reid, Eddie Gladden, and George Cables, who were Dex’s band then, in Hermosa Beach in California, they had chosen me as their next pianist. I explained I could only join them a month later in New York. Then they returned to NY and were playing in the Village Vanguard. I couldn't join them right away because I had promised OC Smith after being away from him for about two years that I would do a short tour with him which would start in LA and end in NY. So, the last night of my stint with OC Smith in the Playboy Club was the Saturday night that I met Linda Brockington, who came to be a long stint in my private life. For the next ten years. A lover. The Sunday night was the end of the week at the Village Vanguard, so of course I went there to hang with the band and let them know that I was there and ready to roll. Well, when I walked in the door they sent me directly to the stage, to the piano, because Albert Daly, who was filling in for George Cables, who had decided to quit before the two-week Village Vanguard engagement, had just told Dexter that night that he was through. So when I walked in it was kind of a perfect timing, like when I met Dexter in Stockholm in the 60s; they sent me straight to the stage, and that’s when I joined Dexter Gordon's band at the Vanguard.

But we’re talking about Bradley’s, and that late 1979 Sunday night, after Dexter and the band, Rufus and Eddie Gladden, welcomed me into the fold, Dexter’s manager Maxine Greg gave me all the instructions and told me that I had to show up on Tuesday morning at nine or ten o’clock in the studio for a recording with Dexter and a big band with Woody Shaw.


After all that business . . . we went to Bradley’s. And Bradley’s was frequented by hoards of people because of Bradley Cunningham’s brilliance and warmth and depth and especially his passion for the music. Bradley’s was the last watering hole where you could hear brilliant music until four o’clock in the morning. Back then it was exclusively duo. Because of the cabaret laws, they only had a license for piano and bass; drums and horns were not allowed in Bradley's. And it remained that way until 1990 when they started to allow drums with brushes or horns because the cabaret law was challenged in the courts and changed in NY. So suddenly we could bring in a drummer with soft brushes. Billy Higgins and Eddie Gladden and Philly Joe, whoever. We could bring in a drummer and we could be a complete trio. Which took Bradley's to another level. In that relatively small space that level of music was truly intense and everyone there would be electrified. Not that it didn’t happen with the duos, because it did. But the intensity with the drums just raised the level until everyone was astounded. And then in another stretch of time, they allowed horns to be on the job also. With Marcus Belgrave, Clifford Jordan, etc. When Marcus Belgrave was there, Wynton Marsalis, who was young at the time and gaining status, regularly came to the club. He looked up to Marcus Belgrave as a trumpet father; he was there every night to hear Marcus. And, of course, we would call him up and he would come up and play with us. It was amazing to have that level of music in this space called Bradley's.

This is when I met Bradley Cunningham and realized that in Bradley I had indeed made a new friend. And all this was during my first trip in ten years back to New York with a purpose.

Bradley’s was a long and narrow wood-paneled space with a long bar. Some people always sat at the bar, never in a chair. From the street entrance on University Place the bar was along the right wall with a few tables along the left wall, which led to the grand piano in a corner with room for bass & drums. Tables for four were set along both walls in the back and a walkway between the bar and the tables on the left led past the piano/ music corner and dining tables back to the toilets, kitchen and office. The bar went all the way up to the piano and the tables went all the way up to the piano, which was more than half way into the club. The pianist’s back was against the same wall as tables. So he or she was looking straight at the bar and the wall behind bartenders' backs. And then at the end of the piano, a Baldwin Grand, which the alto player Paul Desmond of Dave Brubeck's group gave to Bradley, there was a small table where you could feel the vibrations from the piano with your feet on the wooden floor.


And one night in early January 1989 I looked up from the piano and saw sitting at the end of the bar two lovely ladies; Nathalie Massip wearing a green jacket with black fur trim and her friend Deborah. When the set was over I picked up the mic, looked directly at Nat and said, “And that song was called ‘I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed By Anyone But You.’” Then I walked over to introduce myself. When I found out she’s French, I asked if she’d teach me French and she said no. But we didn’t stop there and the proof is our twenty-year-old daughter Leïla who is studying Art in Paris where we live.


Back to legendary Bradley’s. Even the toilets in Bradley's were very famous. Almost as famous as the music and the musicians who played there. Many things were exchanged in those bathrooms. And mind you that Bradley's was a very high level listening space with pianists the likes of Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Roger Kellaway, Kenny Barron, John Hicks, Joanne Brackeen, bass players like Red Mitchell, Rufus Reid, Ray-Bulldog-Drummond, Don Pate, Santi Debriano, among too many other great musicians to list here. They all played in this heavenly residence of music. Which became the New York home for all of us.

Bradley’s not only sold the best liquors and beers, they also had, usually, a fine chef, and there were times when for lunch they would have a pianist play for quite a lunch crowd of people who worked in the area. Which was not the same crowd or ambiance as at night.

The aromas came from the kitchen and lots of people showed up to have dinner before the first set started and there were four sets per night when I began working there. You played for about forty minutes in the first set, and about fifty in the second. Then we were free to play the two final sets for as long as we wished. The third set was a magical set when most people showed up after dinner and were drinking Champagne and listening with very perked ears to whatever magic the pianist and bass player would muster. And during the fourth set everyone who was in town was there who could squeeze into Bradley's to check you out. And when you got house in Bradley's, that was almost like getting house in Carnegie Hall. It was the same level of integrity and listening prowess. The same important people who might be at Carnegie Hall would often come to Bradley's later on if they could get in. Frequently there were limousines parked in front of Bradley's, while the drivers waited for their elegant patrons who were inside enjoying our great music. From the world’s greatest pianists. It was heaven.


There were also the best dealers, drug dealers in New York because in addition to great wine at Bradley's, you could also get the best of anything else you wanted. Because the dealers also loved great music. And many people who loved music also loved great drugs. And very late when lots of great pianists were there, Bradley would put everyone else out and have all the pianists stay to play. We would sometimes do a round robin. There would be five or more pianists in the house. And we would all play a song one after the other. And it would go on like this until nine or ten o'clock in the morning. Sun’s up and finally we had played our last songs and drunk our last drinks and were trying to find our way home after a wonderful night of music.


Bradley Cunningham also played the piano, but he wasn’t on the level of all of his friends. And the great pianists were his friends or at least his good acquaintances. The crew at Bradley's, the waitresses and the bartenders and the doormen, were as adept in music as some of the musicians. Some even played music, not well enough to play at Bradley's, but they knew enough to be high-level listeners. And they knew enough to respect the great musicians who played there. There were times when Red Mitchell was given six weeks at Bradley's. Red Mitchell was a great bass player. And each week he would have a different pianist. One week would probably be Hank Jones, and Hank Jones and Red Mitchell would go the whole week without repeating a song, if you can imagine that. Imagine the depth and the immensity of Hank Jones and Red Mitchell’s knowledge and repertoire. I would also be given a week with Red Mitchell. But I could never do that. Not repeat a song. Get outta here! With Red Mitchell and Hank Jones it was a game for them not to repeat a song for a whole week. Four sets a night. No one else that I knew who played in Bradley's could ever do that.


A Bradley's Larry Willis Story

Larry Willis is a friend of mine who is a great pianist. Perfect pitch. Played with many people but probably he first gained recognition by playing with Woody Shaw. And more recently he played with Jerry Gonzales and the Fort Apache band. Well, one year Larry Willis was at one of his lows such as we all reach early in our careers in New York. And Larry was having a bout with a drug or two. Nothing heavy. But Larry got this gig at Bradley's and Bradley’s started later than Zinno and of course Larry being the brilliant man that he is, he figured out that if he was a little late on each gig on each set then he could do Bradley's and Zinno at the same time. Well, that was how he worked it out. He showed up at Zinno for the first set then he would run over to Bradley's for its first set. Then he’d run back to Zinno for the second set. Zinno was at 13th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues and Bradley's on University Place between Tenth and Eleventh Streets. There were four and a half long blocks between the two pianos. But Larry was brilliant Larry Willis. He managed to work this scheme for about two nights. After those two nights Bradley caught him. Bradley Cunningham took him in the office. Larry told him, I can’t go in the office, I have to go. Bradley said, what do you mean, I want to talk to you about your money, Larry. So, of course, Larry popped into the office. Bradley said, Larry, what are you doing? You’re late every set, and you run out immediately after the set. What the fuck are you doing? Larry said, “I have another gig.” And, of course, Bobby at Zinno was wondering the same thing. And they caught Larry. I don’t remember if they let him finish his weeks at both places or if they gave him his money or not. It’s one of the funniest stories we could ever remember. Only the brilliant Larry Willis would have tried this. We call him Niggerace, (like Liberace) and he calls me Tan Clyburn after the famous classical pianist Van Clyburn. Larry was the absent entity. Or the black imminence.


I played at Bradley's from 1980 to 1991. From the first night with Dexter Gordon, until I left for Paris.

There were regulars who were always at Bradley's, most of the them were Bradley's friends or soon became his friends. If they were there all the time they had to become Bradley's friends. If you were there on a regular basis, Bradley wanted to know you.

One of the stories I tell all the time about Bradley's has to do with the great bass player Jaco Pastorius. And, as you might know, Jaco Pastorius was the Fender electric bass player who was with the Weather Report. Jaco could fill a football stadium by himself playing the bass and get house there, all alone. So brilliant that it seemed to me, he just didn’t know what to do with himself, he didn’t know what to do next. So he would always get into trouble in the clubs, including Bradley's. And he would always come in and piss off one of the waitresses or the doorman or somebody. And whenever I was playing at Bradley's and he was in town, Jaco was sure to come and try to get into Bradley's when I was playing there. They would tell me that Jaco was at the door, but they wouldn’t let him in. Then I would go to the door, make Jaco swear that he would control himself and not piss anybody off and the doorman would reluctantly let me bring in Jaco. Ok. The great Jaco Pastorius. So immediately I would have them turn off the music and sit Jaco down at the piano. Now he was a bassist, but he could play anything. So I would sit him down and he would get house playing the piano. But I didn’t care about that. At least I got him in. And his favorite phrase was “Who loves you, baby?” And, of course, the answer is he loves you. And this is a phrase from an old TV show. But that is how I managed to get Jaco into Bradley's. He was 86’d from most of the clubs in New York because he just couldn’t control himself. He would always just piss off somebody. He would say something that somebody wouldn’t like. I never saw him get into an actual fight, but he could sometimes be obnoxious. It appeared that he couldn’t find anything else to do.


Well, it’s one of my saddest stories, because that’s what ended up happening to him in his home town somewhere in Florida. And I remember him leaving NY going home. I didn’t see him off or anything, but he told me he was going home to visit his family. And we weren’t that close but we were friends. And the next thing I hear, he had gone into a bar or something in his old neighborhood and said something wrong to someone and they beat him to death. The great Jaco Pastorius.

On a brighter side, there is the great Chet Baker, with whom I made some of my earliest recordings, five albums recorded as early as 1965. And much later in 1983 Chet Baker recorded with me on a record called “Everything Happens to Me,” where he sang the title song and played on another one.

Well, when Chet Baker would hear that I was playing at Bradley's and he was in town, he would show up on the first set with his trumpet in a paper bag, and he’d just come in and sit down at the table across from the piano and start to play whatever song I was playing. The Bradley's audience, many who were probably having dinner then, would look up to see who this person was pulling out his trumpet, and would be shocked that it was Chet Baker. They would suddenly be as silent as possible and hear the whisper tones of the great Chet Baker with my music and that of Cecil McBee or Red Mitchell or Rufus Reid or Don Pate or Ron Carter, or Holmes -- Sam Jones. Or whoever the bass player might be working with me and somehow Chet Baker would bring the audience to tears or to great laughter. And then, he would put his trumpet back into the brown paper bag and leave. Why a brown paper bag? He didn’t have a case. I never asked him why. Some of the most poignant moments in Bradley's….


Of course, there were other times, when George Coleman comes to mind, because we did five albums together. Chet Baker, George Coleman on sax, Roy Brooks drums, Herman Wright bass, and me on piano. And that was in 1965. At Bradley’s along with Clifford Jordon, George Coleman would listen to me play “Never Let Me Go” and immediately George would just pull out his horn and join in. And he knew it was all right with me, because on the last part of the third set or the fourth set I would call people up to play with me anyway. At first I was one of the only persons who would do that. George Coleman’s house was the first house I stayed at in New York when I came there with Melba Liston and he has remained my friend and musical comrade for all these years. And he would also tell me when I was playing a chord in a certain place that he didn’t like. When you were at Bradley's you were under a big microscope of the greatest musicians in the world with big ears. Like George Coleman, like Clifford Jordan, like Chet Baker. I mean, name anybody. Like Milt Jackson. Cheers, Big Ears!


To think of Bradley's now, I realize Bradley's was our home. We, or should I say I, on the way to the airport so many times, leaving for a tour, I would catch a cab from Bradley's to the airport just to say goodbye to my friends or goodbye to Bradley. To tell them when I'd be back and not dead on the grapevine. And when I would land back in NY, Bradley's would be my first stop from the airport. Or I would drop my bags and head for Bradley's. To let people know I was back in town, I was back home. And so many times as soon as I would walk back in the door, I would get a gig or a recording. Just because I showed up and checked in. Because when they saw you at Bradley's, they knew you were back.

Art Blakey showed up at Bradley’s also. Everyone came to Bradley's. He’d ask, “Lightsey, why haven’t you ever been in my band?” And I'd look at him and I'd say, “Well, Art, I’m too old.” And he’d look at me and say, “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Try this….” And then we’d walk out of the famous Bradley's bathroom and go and have a drink at the bar. He’d have a cognac and I’d have a vodka. That was me and Art Blakey. Everyone went to Bradley's. Everybody. It was our home.


As a matter of fact, when Bradley's closed some years later (Oct. 20, 1996), Ron Carter said, “Many lives will be saved.” And that’s true, but while Bradley’s was in full swing, many lives were enriched beyond measure.

Evidence of that is available on vinyl LPs and CDs of music recorded live there, including “The Nights at Bradley’s,” a 2004 release on my dear friend François Zalacain’s Sunnyside label of me and Rufus Reid playing at Bradley’s on January 14 and 15, 1985. The music lives on.

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