Above: Jazz fans outside Bradley’s in New York on its penultimate night in business, October 16, 1996. Photograph ©Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. All rights reserved.
To the average passerby, the street-level space at 70 University Place in Manhattan, just a few blocks south of Union Square, holds little significance; it currently houses a garden-variety sports bar. For jazz musicians and fans in the know, however, it’s a landmark. There, from 1969 to 1996, stood Bradley Cunningham’s eponymous saloon—a spot that served as an enclave for artists of all stripes, a pole star for pianists and bassists, and the last port of call for the jazz community on a nightly basis. Blessed with one of the city’s best pianos (courtesy of Paul Desmond), Bradley’s was, in the words of the New York Times’ Peter Watrous—written just after the club closed its doors for the last time—“part jazz headquarters, part jazz college, part exhibition hall.” And all this despite the fact that, for most of its existence, drums were strictly prohibited. In the following oral history, those who knew Bradley’s will attest to its being a sine qua non of the scene for more than a quarter-century.
The Elks Club of Jazz
KIRK LIGHTSEY (pianist): Bradley’s was our home.
RICHIE BEIRACH (pianist): It was a social club. It was like the Elks Club of jazz musicians in New York—young and old.
BUSTER WILLIAMS (bassist): We could meet there after our gigs, and talk, and jive and tell lies [laughs], and just have a great sense of being with each other.
LIGHTSEY: And it was all because of Bradley [Cunningham]. He was a friend to so many of us. That’s why the club became so important.
WENDY CUNNINGHAM (waitress, Bradley’s wife, club owner and operator): He had a very strong personality. He was one of those types of guys that was liked and loved by both men and women, which is not all that common. So he had a good rapport with a lot of people, especially people in the arts.
FRED HERSCH (pianist): He was certainly a connoisseur, knew piano players, knew tunes, and could play after a fashion.
CUNNINGHAM: Bradley was a World War II-era kid, and he joined the Marines. He was stationed in the Pacific, on Saipan, and was an interpreter for combat intelligence at [about] the age of 19. He managed to acquire enough Japanese to be able to do that. To some degree or another, he spoke five languages.
SCOTT PEREZ (bartender): Bradley was really a larger-than-life figure. I had never met anyone quite like him.
CUNNINGHAM: I started working at Bradley’s in mid-June 1969, a couple weeks after it opened, and I first met Bradley a few weeks later. The music didn’t come in until that winter. He wanted to get himself established—get the saloon aspect of the room set—before bringing music in. So it was really a lunch and dinner place.
BEIRACH: The food was pretty good. I mean, it was a saloon. But the food was much better than it had to be and the drinks were strong, not watered down.
DAVE LIEBMAN (saxophonist): This was a time in New York when it was easy to just go and listen and have a beer. You didn’t need a small fortune. And of course, Bradley was very proactive in making that happen.
CUNNINGHAM: During the first few years of Bradley’s, it wasn’t the piano-and-bass room that it became. There was a lot of electric keyboard and guitar. Bradley and Roy Kral were good friends, and Roy had a lot of pianos at his house. He had an old electric Wurlitzer so he said, “I’ll give it to you if you want to throw it in there and see if you can get anyone to play it.” That was the first keyboard in there … and the place would really be jumping. In fact, one of The New Yorker listings in the “Night Life” section said, “If it’s electric, you can find it here.” I always thought that was amusing, considering what it eventually became.
A Duo Paradise
BEIRACH: I started to play there in 1972 or 1973, and my first gigs were on an upright piano they had—playing duo. It was six nights a week, usually four or five sets a night.
CUNNINGHAM: It was a Yamaha upright. Cedar Walton picked it out. Bradley went shopping with Cedar for it. That would’ve been a couple years after the place opened … and there was a definite shift after that came in.
HERSCH: The first time I came to Bradley’s was when I came down to New York on a scouting trip. I was living in Boston and I knew I wanted to move to New York, so I made a trip down to just look around. I knew about Bradley’s from The New Yorker—even out in Cincinnati my parents subscribed. And this was back when there was an upright piano. It was before Paul Desmond had willed his Baldwin to Bradley on the condition that he put it in the club, not in his apartment.
RUFUS REID (bassist): When Paul Desmond died [in May of 1977] and willed his Baldwin grand to Bradley’s, it was like the place had been lifted into a cloud. It had a better piano than the Village Vanguard. That sent a message to all of the other clubs: “You guys are supposed to be the places, and this little club has a better piano.”
KENNY BARRON (pianist): I remember when we started using that [Baldwin grand]. It was fun before that, but it was great fun after that.
ADAM NUSSBAUM (drummer): You would hear the best of the finest playing duo there. On piano it might be Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Jimmy Rowles, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, or Larry Willis. And on bass you’d have Sam Jones, Red Mitchell, George Mraz, Ray Drummond, you name it. There were just fantastic combinations.
BEIRACH: And why no drums? The [New York City] Cabaret Law. If you had a drummer it was considered another thing, and you had to have a license for that.
BILL MAYS (pianist): City readers with decibel meters would be checking out the level of the sound coming out [of the club]. So it was mostly piano and bass.
BEIRACH: Bradley’s was the best, but not the only duo place. The Knickerbocker [opened in 1978] was just down the street [at 33 University Place, where it remains to this day].
MAYS: Bradley’s and the Knickerbocker staggered their sets so the patrons could catch a set at the Knickerbocker, then run up to Bradley’s for a set, and then run back. That was a good thing. But one week Larry Willis double-booked himself on purpose, thinking that he could play at the Knickerbocker, run 45 seconds up the street to play the first set at Bradley’s, then run back down. Well, he got caught on the second or third night and Bradley fired him.
ROGER KELLAWAY (pianist): The Knickerbocker was nothing compared to Bradley’s, because at Bradley’s there was nothing to distract you from the music.
MAYS: The Knickerbocker was a restaurant that had jazz; Bradley’s was a jazz club that had food.
PEREZ: Somebody actually said the Knickerbocker was the best gig because you started early so you ended early and you could go hang out at Bradley’s afterwards.
ROSEANNA VITRO (vocalist): It was like this magical oasis. If somebody wanted to drink too much, or smoke a joint, or do drugs, they certainly could find that. But it wasn’t about that. It was about the music, the camaraderie, and the New York jazz family.
NUSSBAUM: The great thing about Bradley’s was that it was open an hour after all the other clubs would close. So when you’d finish doing a gig at Sweet Basil or Fat Tuesday’s or the Vanguard or Seventh Avenue South, you would head over to Bradley’s.
JOHN MOORE (bartender): It had the last set in the city, basically, so all the musicians that were in town would meet there to tell stories, see what was going on and hear each other play.
Passing the Test
HERSCH: For a young pianist it was trial by fire, because you never knew what famous pianist or bassist or anybody else was out in the audience. You had to do your thing, and maybe a little stronger.
BEIRACH: When Tommy Flanagan and Bill Evans and Hank Jones and Monty Alexander are standing there listening, it’s a great opportunity to reach down and play your best shit. They were hard guys. If they didn’t like what they heard, they’d turn around and order another drink. But if they liked it, they’d come and tell you.
LIGHTSEY: We were all standing at the bar—Kenny Barron, Ronnie Matthews, Roger Kellaway, Michel Petrucciani. All the piano players.
NUSSBAUM: I used to say that if a bomb went off at Bradley’s on certain nights, there would be no piano players left in New York.
GEOFFREY KEEZER (pianist): I remember sitting there, maybe on my first night at the 2 a.m. set, and I’m looking at the bar and seeing literally a dozen or so pianists that I grew up studying on record as a kid in Wisconsin. Cecil Taylor occupied his regular position in the corner, at the end of the bar near the piano. And I remember looking up and seeing Cedar Walton and Ray Bryant and Junior Mance and Harold Mabern. I saw all these pianists sitting there listening to me play, and it was terrifying but oddly validating in the same way.
HERSCH: There were certain guys that were tough, but they were right. If you’re going to play the tune, know the bridge. I would go in there and listen to certain people play and think, “You’re not playing the bridge right.” But I didn’t have enough gravitas to call them on it. There was a sense of respect for the composer and for the tradition.
RUSSELL MALONE (guitarist): One night I was playing there with John Hicks and Ray Drummond. John started playing “Sophisticated Lady.” I didn’t really know the tune at the time. So John played the A section and then he motioned for me to play the bridge. I didn’t know it—that bridge is tricky, so I didn’t know the melody—so I started improvising over the changes. Ray Drummond, who’s a big imposing figure of a man, looked at me and shot me the dirtiest look. He started playing the melody on the bass, looking at me the whole time he’s playing. Now keep in mind that Bradley’s had a hip audience, so everybody knew what was going down. I was getting schooled … and that was Bradley’s. You got educated.
BEIRACH: Charles Mingus would come in and eat dinner—like enough for three people—and sit at the table right across from the piano. So one night I was playing “’Round Midnight,” and in the middle of the fucking tune—not at the end—Mingus gets up from his table and says, “You’re playing the wrong changes.” He’s yelling in my fucking face, and I’m scared. He says, “Get out of the way,” and pushes me out of the way to show me. The third bar. The first beat of the third bar. I thought it was E-flat minor because Monk played it that way, but he says it’s C half-diminished. I tried to tell him that C half-diminished is E-flat minor with C in the bass. So I’m yelling back at him, which he likes because he didn’t like when people backed down. After that we became friends.
BARRON: We would do three sets a night, six nights a week, and not repeat any songs. And that’s a challenge because you really find out how many songs you know and how many songs you don’t know but think you know. The only person I did it with was Ray Drummond, and he knew a lot of songs.
LEEANN LEDGERWOOD (pianist): Bill Evans once said in an interview that if a pianist knew enough tunes to play a week at Bradley’s, they were probably all right.
KEEZER: One of the other great things about Bradley’s was that surprise guests would just appear without warning. For example, George Coleman would always bring his horn to the club. And anytime he felt like playing he would just take his horn out of the case, stick the mouthpiece on the horn and start playing. And at that point, it became George’s gig [laughs]. You played whatever George wanted to play, and you played everything in all 12 keys.
JOE LOCKE (vibraphonist): One time I was sitting at the bar and Billy Higgins walked in the door. He was carrying a newspaper under his arm and holding a pair of brushes. He pulled up a chair from one of the restaurant tables, put the newspaper on top of it, and played the remainder of the set with David Williams and Cedar Walton. It was swinging as hard as if he was playing a full drum set. That was absolutely stunning.
From Dusk to Daylight
REID: Some of the greatest stuff actually happened after Bradley’s closed for the night.
BOB MEAGHER (bartender): At 4 a.m. you had to stop serving. So at about 20 to 4 one of the bartenders would walk through the room, pick out a half dozen musicians and a few other guys, and tell ’em to go out back. We’d throw everybody else out, and then for about four hours you’d have guys like Tommy Flanagan, Jimmy Rowles, Red Mitchell, and George Mraz playing for [their own enjoyment]. It was priceless.
RON McCLURE (bassist): The real deal was hanging out with Tommy Flanagan and Jimmy Rowles after Bradley’s closed. I wouldn’t get home until noon sometimes. Bradley would be hanging out, and we’d be having conversations and they’d be showing each other different chord changes.
REID: If you wanted to know the changes of a song, you knew Tommy or Jimmy could just tell you right off. It wasn’t like, “Wait, let me go look to check the music.” They could just tell it to you, and then you’d be assured that that’s the way it should go. These guys were meticulous because they played with a lot of singers, and singers pretty much sang the way the composer wrote it. [Tommy and Jimmy] were almost encyclopedias of the proper chord changes.
HERSCH: One night it was super late—like really late, early morning—and there was a knock at the door of Bradley’s. It was Tommy Flanagan and Jimmy Rowles, and they were completely smashed. I don’t know where they’d been, but they had been out drinking. They came in and got into this game of “I Bet You Don’t Know This Tune.” This went on and on. If I’d had any sense, I would’ve written down the names of some of these tunes on a napkin because they were super-obscure.
REID: I remember playing with Jimmy Rowles for two weeks, and I thought I knew a lot of songs. I do know a lot of songs, but I may have only known three or four songs we did in those two weeks. If I didn’t know it he would just say, “OK, I’ll play a chorus out front. You just come in then.” He wouldn’t tell you what key; he wouldn’t tell me if it had a bridge. So your tentacles—your ears—became huge in that situation. And once you’d hear it—once you played it for a couple choruses—you had it.
JOANNE BRACKEEN (pianist): I went into Bradley’s all the time, and everybody knew who I was, but Bradley would never hire me. I couldn’t get that together because I had been working everywhere else, and, of course, I had been with Art Blakey and Stan Getz and Joe Henderson. So one night—I’m not sure if he was working there or had just stopped in—Tommy Flanagan played and I thought, “Maybe if I go up to the piano and just play like Tommy for a couple tunes, that’ll work.” And that worked. From that time on I was hired.
LIGHTSEY: We would all just do round-robin playing the piano—one tune after another, one person after another—until 9 or 10 in the morning. And after the last song was played and the last drink was drunk, we staggered out of the place and tried to find our way home.
BRACKEEN: Sometimes before the pianist would start playing, Bradley would go up to the piano and play a set. He would learn chords from Jimmy Rowles, and I really liked the chords he was playing on some of the tunes so I would listen and remember them. One tune I remembered like that was “Skylark”; another one was “Blood Count.” I learned those from listening to Bradley.
Bradley’s After Bradley
CUNNINGHAM: The piano-bass thing, although it was the hallmark of the place—its body and soul, really—just wasn’t drawing people in like it used to [in the mid-to-late ’80s]. Bradley was getting ready to expand the format himself the last couple years [before he passed away in November of 1988]. Then things loosened up with the Cabaret Law just about the time I took over. All of that came together so I could bend things a little.
BARRON: This [relaxing of the Cabaret Law] wasn’t her doing, but [it] allowed them to have drums and horns.
MOORE: Not everybody loved Wendy as much as Bradley—people resented change as much as anything—but she kept the business open another [eight] years. Considering the financial problems she was looking at, I think that was incredible.
CUNNINGHAM: Everybody “accused” me of adding the cover charge, but Bradley actually started that. To go with that was the quiet policy. That was the one that really upset people because [Bradley] would run a noisy store and he hated it and was trying to get the place quiet. Bradley also did these 45-minute sets, which I thought was highly awkward, so one of the first things I did to straighten things out was call the musicians up and ask them what they thought of three one-hour sets with an hour between them. They all went along with it. And if they didn’t go along with it, they didn’t play there.
BRACKEEN: Wendy kept up a lot of the people Bradley hired, but then she also brought in younger people. Roy Hargrove would come and sit in.
CHRISTIAN McBRIDE (bassist): Almost everybody in my generation—Roy Hargrove, Antonio Hart, Stephen Scott, Mark Whitfield, Russell Malone, Gregory Hutchinson—didn’t start playing Bradley’s until 1989 or 1990, so we never knew Bradley.
CUNNINGHAM: Roy was still at Berklee when I brought him down. Sunday was the odd night—the Bradley’s gig ran from Monday through Saturday—so I could try people out that I wouldn’t necessarily be ready to book for a week. I would pair somebody new with more veteran players, John Hicks in particular.
McBRIDE: Wendy was very smart like that, breaking in some of the younger musicians. The older veterans really put us through our paces.
REID: She had some great people in there, but the vibe was different. And then, unfortunately, there was a fire [in the kitchen, in 1995]. That’s when all hell broke loose.
MOORE: They had to redo the place [which led to construction costs of approximately $400,000] and she had to sell it. I think she had a lot of offers from people, but I don’t think she wanted to give up control.
CUNNINGHAM: I talked to some people, but they had no idea what they were doing. They would’ve been closed within a week.
LOCKE: I played the last official night the club was open [October 17, 1996], with Victor Lewis, Stephen Scott, and Ed Howard. Right up to the bitter end there seemed to be this hope that it was going to stay open. Then, just all of a sudden, it was gone.
RANDY BRECKER (trumpeter): And that was the end of the greatest bebop jazz hang in New York history!
BARRON: I miss it a lot. Mezzrow is the closest thing to it now, but it’s not quite the same.
SPIKE WILNER (pianist, club owner): When I had the opportunity to open Mezzrow, I thought about Bradley’s. It was my inspiration. But Mezzrow isn’t supposed to be Bradley’s because you can’t make that again.
WILLIAMS: Bradley’s was an environment created by an era. It’ll never be repeated.