When current Jazz St. Louis President and CEO Gene Dobbs Bradford moved to St. Louis in 1994 to work with the St. Louis Symphony, he got to know the city from the seat of his bicycle. “I just hopped on my bike and rode around,” he said. “It’s how I discovered St. Louis.”
As Bradford celebrates 20 seasons with Jazz St. Louis this year, we reached out to him to learn what he loves about our community, about music, and about cycling — and where they all intersect in his life.
“When I was a kid, my bike was my main source of transportation,” said Bradford, who grew up in Maryland. “It was freedom. It was enjoyment. It was a chance to make connections.”
He concedes he could just as well be talking about music. “We all need to escape our everyday. We need to have the opportunity to do things that are transformative,” Bradford said. “You have to find outlets that enrich you, that are going to nourish your soul. Both music and being active can help you do that.”
Prior to joining Jazz St. Louis in 1999, Bradford spent years as a gigging musician during college. After completing a bachelor’s degree in double bass performance from the Eastman School of Music, he discovered a love for arts management through a fellowship program through the League of American Symphony Orchestras, overseeing symphonic notables such as the Baltimore and Honolulu symphonies.
In 2000, he also began competing in triathlons. While he doesn’t race anymore, he still relishes riding his bike for exercise and pleasure. “Go to Forest Park on a Saturday morning. That’s where you see St. Louis,” Bradford said. “When you think about it, there aren’t too many things that unite people like that. Music is like that. It’s a community experience, and so is enjoying nature and the outdoors.”
Bradford’s combination of performance artistry, passion for jazz, and love of arts management has helped bring national and international attention to Jazz St. Louis. Under his guidance, nonprofit organization has managed to open the Harold and Dorothy Steward Center for Jazz; be named one of the top 10 jazz clubs in the U.S. by USA Today and Wynton Marsalis; and earn a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Art Program, which recognizes organizations for their potential continued impact on their respective fields and visionary leadership in promoting the arts.
“Music is life to me,” Bradford said. “Music is something that I just can’t do without. Whenever I hear it, I think about what notes are there, what count it’s in. Even walking through the grocery store, if I hear piped-in music, I have to listen to it and figure out who and what it is.
“And there’s nothing like seeing live performances, just watching people walk and stage and create,” he added.
The one place he doesn’t listen to music? On his bike.
“Some people listen to music while riding, which I think can be dangerous. You have to be focused,” Bradford said. “It’s the same thing when you’re performing. If you want to get the most out of a performance, you have to be really present.”
Bradford sees promise in the movement toward more connected greenways and bike paths in St. Louis. “I love seeing bike paths springing up, because like I said before, people need a safe way to get around and make connections,” he said. “If people are biking because of the beautiful pathways, they may see our big ol’ saxophone sign and discover us [at Jazz St. Louis]. And when you make a discovery, that’s where the real fun is.”
Catch the Beat
Jazz St. Louis is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is to lead our community in advancing the uniquely American art of jazz through live performance, education, and community engagement. “We have programs that are immediately accessible,” said Jazz St. Louis President and CEO Gene Dobbs Bradford. “There’s something for everybody. If you don’t know what you’re interested in, come out and try something new.” You can get inside the Jazz St. Louis experience with “The Beat”, a collection of articles, interviews, and behind-the-scenes looks to keep in tune with local and visiting artists, events, and more. See jazzstl.org/the-beat/.
Author: Brad Kovach is the editor/publisher of Terrain Magazine.