Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Remembering Jack Bradley (1934–2021)

A rabid Louis Armstrong fan, he became the jazz icon’s personal photographer and a member of his inner circle

Jack Bradley with Louis Armstrong
Jack Bradley with Louis Armstrong (photo courtesy of Louis Armstrong House Museum, Jack Bradley Collection)

Jack Bradley, a masterful jazz photographer, devoted longtime companion of Louis Armstrong, gifted sailor, and beloved Cape Codder, passed away on Sunday, March 21, at the Pleasant Bay Nursing Rehabilitation Center in Brewster, Massachusetts, from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 87.

Born in Cotuit, Mass., on January 3, 1934, Jack discovered his two passions—boating and Louis Armstrong—early, thanks to a father figure, Bob Hayden, who opened up his home to Jack, introducing him to Armstrong’s recordings on 78s. Little did young Jack realize the role that Armstrong would eventually play in his life.

Jack wore many hats over the years: photographer, road manager, manager, writer, booking agent, charter boat captain, nightclub manager, disc jockey, lecturer, concert producer, and founder of both the New York Jazz Museum and the Cape Cod Jazz Society (the latter with the late Marie Marcus). To those who knew him, Jack will always be remembered for his warm-hearted crustiness, his ribald humor, and his absolute honesty.

A graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Jack did a stint as a merchant mariner before landing in Manhattan in 1959 with a camera around his neck. Through a girlfriend, he met his idol Louis Armstrong; soon he had become something like a son to the musical giant. “The first time I visited his home in Corona, Queens, I was so nervous that I was shaking,” Jack remembered. “Louis, though, had a way of putting you at ease. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Everything’s cool, man. We’re just two guys hanging out.’ Instantly my nerves vanished.”

For the next 12 years, Jack attended hundreds of Armstrong concerts and recording sessions. “I think Pops liked me because I never asked him for anything. He had a lot of hangers-on always asking for bread—and Louis was generous to a fault. But for me, just hanging out with him was enough.”

Jack believed that Armstrong was the perfect subject for any photographer. “With that face and his beautiful smile, how could anyone take a bad shot?” Yet a Jack Bradley photograph of Louis Armstrong seems to dig deeper, to the true soul of the man. Perhaps it was because Pops loved, respected, and trusted Jack so deeply.  

Before long, Jack had become an in-demand photographer. His images of Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, and dozens of others are considered to be some of the finest jazz photographs ever taken. A shot he took of Holiday in May 1959 is possibly the last picture of Lady Day in performance.

Jazz musicians loved Jack for his humor and his heart. His generosity was legendary. When the trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen died in the spring of 1967, Jack immediately organized a benefit to bring in much-needed money for the Allen family. When trumpeter Bobby Hackett died in Chatham, Mass., in 1976, it was Jack who raised the money for his headstone. “When help is needed,” the late cornetist Ruby Braff remembered, “Jack is always there.”

After leaving Manhattan for his native Cape Cod in 1977, Jack began a successful charter boat business, as well as co-founding the Cape Cod Jazz Society. Renowned jazz musicians such as Hackett and Braff followed him to the Cape after Jack rhapsodized about its charms. There he founded a record store, Vintage Jazz, and produced his own jazz radio show on WFCC.

A voracious jazz collector, Jack amassed more than 25,000 recordings (10,000 78s alone!); over 200 hours of 16-millimeter films; over 10,000 pieces of sheet music; and thousands of photographs, books, magazines, and paintings. In 2005 he sold the Louis Armstrong section of his collection to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, nearly doubling the museum’s holdings. “I was paid a fair price,” he said at the time. “Plus, I now know that my collection will be taken good care of.”

When Jack visited New York City for the last time in February 2015, it was to see his photography exhibit at the Armstrong House Museum. He also made appearances at nightclubs such as Iguana and Birdland, where the musicians lined up to say hello and pay tribute to one of jazz’s finest photographers, philanthropists, and characters.

“It’s been said that ‘teachers affect eternity,’” radio host Dick Golden says, “and among Jack’s many skills was his ability to teach … through his jazz photography, captivating lectures, and producing concerts. I’ll be eternally grateful to have had Jack and [his wife] Nancy as friends and being a guest in their Harwich home viewing great jazz films and listening to Louis Armstrong recordings. Whenever I had the honor of having Jack as a radio guest, or in many personal encounters and phone conversations, when Jack spoke about his friend Satchmo, I always felt as if Louis Armstrong was in the room with us!”

Throughout his life, Armstrong remained Jack’s touchstone. “Louis is my grand guru and idol,” he said. “I feel that everything great in music came from Pops. For me, jazz is two words: Louis Armstrong.”

A celebration of Jack’s life will be held later in the spring. He is also the subject of a soon-to-be-released documentary, Through My Lens: Classic Jazz Visions with Jack Bradley.

Jack Bradley is survived by his beloved wife Nancy; his brother Bob Bradley and his wife Joan, of Punta Gorda, Florida; his sister Bonnie Lee Jordan of East Falmouth, Mass.; his youngest sister Emmy Lou Shanley and her husband Brian of Saunderstown, Rhode Island; as well as three nephews and one niece. Jack is predeceased by his mother Kay Beatty, his stepfather Walter Beatty, his sister Polly Ann Bradley, and his nephew Allen Bradley.