by Len Lear
In 1979, 10-year-old Jeff Bradshaw, who was living in a public housing project in North Philly, would go down to Broad and Chestnut Streets every Friday. In front of the Mellon Bank building, he and several young friends who had formed a brass band would play music for hours.
They would put a bucket on the sidewalk, and pedestrians would drop money into the bucket. On an average Friday, they would take in about $300 to $350, which they spent on travels to churches in other cities, where their band would play music. Jeff, whose father was a leader of gospel brass bands, basically taught himself to play the trombone and several other instruments.
Next Wednesday, May 28, at 7:30 p.m., Jeff Bradshaw, now 44, who has been called “the nation’s most sought-after trombone player,” will be playing his instrument only a couple hundred yards south of his former “venue” on the corner of Broad and Chestnut Streets, but there will be no bucket for tips this time.
In fact, Jeff, who has lived in Chestnut Hill for the past three years, will be making history. For the first time ever, a group of all African-American musicians will be playing for a live album recording/concert at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. The album will be called “Home, Live at the Kimmel Center,” and it will be released later this year.
Playing with Jeff will be Grammy® Award-winning and nominated special guests including Trombone Shorty, Take 6, Marsha Ambrosius, Kim Burrell, Najee, etc., as well as a string ensemble and Jeff’s 10-piece band. “It is very rare to get so many big-name artists together except for the Grammys or other award show,” said Jeff in an interview last week, “but they wanted to be a part of something historic. This will be epic!”
Jeff, whose family was not able to afford music lessons for him or to send him to a conservatory or college of any sort, says he was “born with a gift.”
Bradshaw’s first musical experience was playing the snare drum at the United House of Prayer, 12th and Poplar Streets. Following that, he began playing the baritone horn and sousaphone. He recalls one very powerful day in Benjamin Franklin High School when everyone was asked to stand in front of the instrument he would like to play.
Of course, there was a crowd surrounding the drums, guitars, saxophones, trumpets, percussion and woodwinds, but not one person was standing near the stack of trombones in the corner. Bradshaw believes that was the day the trombone was to begin its trek to becoming “the coolest instrument in mainstream music, not just jazz.” He was determined to make the trombone hip, and not just an instrument for nerds in the high school band.
“I never wanted anything but music as a career,” he said. “I knew even as a child that music would be my journey.”
Jeff bounced around for seven years until his big break arrived. In 1994 he began to meet the Who’s Who of what is now the hierarchy of the Philly music community. People like James Poyser, Andre Harris, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Ahmir ”Questluv” Thompson, Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter of the Roots Crew, DJ King Britt, Keith Pelzer and many others. It was because of these musicians that Bradshaw arrived at the real world of major recordings, with artists like Eryka Badu, Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige, Jay Z, Darius Rucker, The Roots, Patti Labelle, Earth Wind & Fire, Sting, The Dave Matthews Band and Michael Jackson, all of whom he has worked with.
It wasn’t until one night at a popular live music spot in downtown Philly called Wilamina’s that he got his chance to step to the front of a popular band that he had played “side man” in. The leader of the band was Bradshaw’s close friend, trumpet master, Jafar Barron. This particular evening Barron was having personal difficulties, and the band would not have had a leader for the rest of the night. So Bradshaw stepped up to the front with a trombone and began to lead this hip hop soul band as if he had been waiting for that opportunity all his life.
A few years after that experience, the Philly mega-star Jill Scott had begun to record her first album, and Bradshaw was invited to become a part of that. And before long, they were on the road, where Jill Scott’s star soared. Later, at a celebrity-laden launch party of Hidden Beach Recordings, Bradshaw met the man who would change his life, Steve McKeever, the record company’s CEO.
Bradshaw wound up with a record deal with Hidden Beach Recordings. In early 2012, he performed live at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., as a kick-off to the MLK Holiday weekend. He has performed all over the U.S. and in many foreign countries for as many as 100,000 people at one time in a soccer stadium in Nigeria.
“This life is a like a paid vacation,” said Jeff. “Being in a private jet with Jay Z, for example, is quite an experience for a kid from the North Philly projects. And being able to do what I love and be well paid for it is a blessing. But it is also very hard work, and there are always people trying to take your place. I practice every day because you always have to be ready when (and if) that phone call comes. The only down side is being away from my family.
“When I talk to kids in the inner city (he will be speaking to an auditorium full of teenagers at Benjamin Franklin High School, his alma mater, on May 23), I tell them I know what they are going through because I’ve been there. I tell them they can do it, but they have to make good decisions and do the right thing. I had the church and good parents on my side to steer me in the right direction.” (Jeff’s dad, Norman Bradshaw, who died in October, 2011, was an accomplished trombonist, singer and musician. “He was an amazing guy,” said Jeff. “He was my biggest fan. I wanted to be just like him. He was the best of everything.”)
When it comes to living in Chestnut Hill, Jeff, who has four children of his own, insists he loves living here “because no one knows who I am, and you can walk everyplace. I like Cin Cin, Bredenbeck’s, Campbell’s and the cigar lounge, and no one will bother me. In Mt. Airy or Germantown, it’s a different story.”
For more information about Jeff, visit www.jeffbradshaw.com. For tickets to the May 28 concert (tickets are from $49 to $100, but they are not sold out of a bucket), call 215-893-1999, or visit www.kimmelcenter.org.