Gene Dobbs Bradford leaves Jazz St. Louis optimistic about the local scene’s future
When Gene Dobbs Bradford became president and CEO of Jazz St. Louis in 1998, he was determined to make the organization one of the city's most respected cultural institutions.
After more than two decades leading Jazz St. Louis, he's accomplished that goal. This week, Bradford steps down as president to lead the Savannah Music Festival in Savannah, Georgia.
He leaves Jazz St. Louis in the strong hands: Trumpeter Keyon Harrold serves as creative advisor, and business consultant Celia Hosler, who has worked as a consultant for nonprofit arts organizations, has joined the organization as interim president and CEO.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Chad Davis spoke with Bradford about his tenure leading the organization and the state of the region’s jazz scene.
Chad Davis: What were some of those big goals that you had in mind when you first started at Jazz St. Louis, and did you accomplish those goals?
Gene Dobbs Bradford: We did what I wanted to do, but then I realized that we could do it better. So the first thing that we did is, with the help of the Whitaker Foundation, we started a program that was a lot like a program that the Whitaker Foundation was funding at the symphony, where instead of taking the orchestra musicians out into the community to do masterclasses workshops, in school performances, community performances, we would do that same thing with the artists who were performing at the Bistro.
Then as that sort of solidified, then it's like, all right, well, what else can we do? And we said hey, we should have a student ensemble. And so I remember we approached [philanthropist] Michael Staenberg about this, and he gave us some funding to get it started. And it was called the THF Realty All Star Student Jazz Ensemble. So we talked to him and said, hey, can we call them the Jazz St. Louis All Stars and he was like, it's fine. And then that program started off, and there were I think six or seven students in that in the early years, but that program has grown now so we have seven ensembles that meet, and they're all varying ranges of accomplishment. So it's great because part of jazz and one of the things that I see a lot with the greats is that they're always passing on their knowledge to the next generation. And jazz is an art form that has a lot of reverence for what's come before.
Davis: Talk a little bit about the state of the St. Louis jazz scene now and how it's changed over the past decades. Are you optimistic about where St. Louis jazz is going?
Bradford: I'm so optimistic about the future of jazz in St. Louis. I'm seeing so many musicians who, you know, are recently out of college, and the music that they're making is at a really high level, and we're seeing them go off to play with folks like Emanuel Harrold and Jahmal Nichols [and] Gregory Porter.
But when I look at the folks who are doing really well here, they still have that connection to the generation before them, and they're still looking to nurture the generations coming after. They refer to each other as brothers and sisters, and that's the way it is. That's the thing that I think is really special.
Davis: What are organizations here getting right? What does Jazz St. Louis, and others, still need to reckon with to make sure that this is an environment that supports local artists, and that you retain that talent?
Bradford: I think one of the big advantages St. Louis has is the willingness among organizations to collaborate.
I always dreamed of having somebody in a history class, you know, 75 years from now saying that they refer to this as the St. Louis period. And what made this period distinct was that there were all these organizations that were collaborating together, and they produced this phenomenal body of work, so like a Harlem Renaissance. But the reason why this came about was because of the willingness of people to collaborate. And when you see what we've done with Opera Theatre of St. Louis, in the works that we commissioned from Terence Blanchard, I mean, we literally changed history with that. The first opera by an African American composer was performed at the Metropolitan Opera, and it's a work that came out of St. Louis.
Davis: You're talking about the collaborative nature of St Louis jazz artists, what does St Louis need to do to become a bigger center for jazz since we do have all these jazz artists, we do have all these collaborations happening and this history here?
Bradford: We have everything we need, we just need to make sure that we have an ecosystem that's going to allow musicians to stay here and make enough money to support themselves. I think that things have changed a lot with COVID and with the rise of the internet, because one doesn't have to be in New York to be a practicing musician. Peter Martin is a great example of that. I mean, he's traveling the world doing stuff, but he makes St. Louis his home.
Even with bringing somebody back, like Keyon Harrold. I mean, he was this little skinny kid going off to New York to seek his fortune. And now he's coming back, like the conquering hero, and he's all about wanting to connect with the folks who are out there, not just the young folks, but everybody on the music scene. I think that if we can create an environment where there's work, there are opportunities. And I think it involves some of the folks getting together.
Davis: Obviously you'll be heading to Savannah, Georgia, for the Savannah Music Festival, you know, what led to the decision to join the Savannah festival and, you know, what are your main goals when you join?
Bradford: I want to take this great organization that's doing some really creative things and I want them to, to really serve the whole of the community. I think that they have the same challenges that a lot of other arts organizations have when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion. And I think that the ways that we can start to address that are, one, by making more connections within the community but also looking at our programming and as good as it is, looking at it with an eye towards bringing in those new audiences, more audiences of color, younger audiences, and do it in a way that the folks who've been supporting it for a long time, they'll embrace it. They say that this is what they want, and we’re going to make it happen.
Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled philanthropist Michael Staenberg's name.