Jack Bradley passed away on Sunday evening, March 21, 2021. He was 87-years-old. Though not a household name, he was a hero to those who loved Louis Armstrong and especially to us at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. This “That’s My Home” home site and our social media presence would not be what they are without the treasures from Jack’s collection.
Bradley met Armstrong in 1959 and the two hit it off immediately. Jack often had a camera with him and over the last 12 years of Armstrong’s life, served as the trumpeter’s personal photographer. Bradley became one of Armstrong’s closest friends; Louis would sometimes refer to him as his “white son.”
Bradley did more than just shoot photos; he collected everything he could related to Armstrong, amassing the world’s largest private collection of Armstrong artifacts, with thousands of records, magazines, books, programs, posters, scores, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, objects, clothing and much, much more. In 2005, the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation gave the Louis Armstrong House Museum a $480,000 grant to purchase the Bradley Collection. It was arranged, preserved and cataloged thanks to a grant from the IMLS in 2009 and it was completely digitized thanks to a grant from Fund II Foundation in 2016. You search through the entire contents of the monumental Bradley Collection on our Digital Collections site.
This post will offer some background on Jack’s early life and initial meetings with Louis and will allow us to showcase some of our favorite Bradley photographs–such as this gorgeous color portrait, taken by Jack in 1969:
Or this one of Louis and Miles Davis in 1970:
Or Louis in the spotlight in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1967:
Or Louis answering the phone in his Mets cap at home in 1970:
Pretty incredible work from a self-taught photographer, no?
As you might have judged from the title, this will be the first of an ongoing series. Louis at home, Louis in the studio, Louis backstage–Jack was there for all of those moments (and many more) with his camera and we will explore these themes in future posts. If anyone deserves multiple virtual exhibits, it’s Jack Bradley.
A note on the title of the series, “The Greatest Photo Taker.” Jack never took any moment he spent with Armstrong for granted. Unlike others who asked for autographs or even for cash, Bradley was just happy to be there. Louis sensed this and respected it and rewarded Jack’s good manners by frequently giving him anything he had at the time, photos, letters, tapes, anything and everything. Jack was thrilled to get any of it; some of the most wonderful items in the Bradley Collection are things that most folks would have thrown out, such as a laundry receipt showing “90 hankies” on the list–a day in the life of Louis Armstrong.
Anyway, Armstrong was in a generous mood while hanging with Bradley one afternoon in his den, going through old photos he had in his desk and asking if Bradley wanted to take any. Of course, Jack was thrilled at the opportunity and he took one, then took another, and took a few more. Louis smiled and asked if he wanted to autograph one for him. Jack thanked him and this is what Louis signed:
Here’s audio of Jack in 2008 telling Michael Cogswell and David Ostwald the story of what happened next:
Armstrong’s inscription was actually a clever pun, the phrase “Photo Taker” serving a double-meaning that summed Bradley up perfectly as an excellent photographer and one of the all-time great collectors.
Bradley was born in Cotuit on Cape Cod in Massachusetts on January 3, 1934. His first love was the sea. He became a merchant marine and ran a charter boat for decades after moving back to the Cape in the early 1970s. A life at sea might have satisfied him, but Bradley also showed an interest in jazz, buying records by Wild Bill Davison (“That’s a Plenty” was a favorite) and Louis Armstrong (the 1938 “When the Saints Go Marching In” was his first) and often went to see bands such as Count Basie and the Dorsey Brothers when they played dances in Massachusetts.
In 1953, Louis Armstrong and His All Stars passed that way and Jack, already a fan though perhaps not a worshipper, decided to go. Hearing Armstrong up close and personal changed his life right then and there.
In 2012, Italian filmmaker Michele Cinque came to the United States and interviewed Jack for a documentary on Armstrong, Mr. Jazz. Michele graciously donated the raw footage of his interview to our Archives and we’d like to use it throughout this tribute. This is actually the very beginning of the shoot, Jack in his favorite recliner (Michele’s crew built the black backdrop right in Jack’s living room), wearing a New England Patriots jersey with the number 78 (not for any particular player, but for 78-rpm records!) and telling the story of this fateful first encounter–all before reaching down to grab a beer and offer a toast to Louis. A great introduction to what it was like to hang with Jack!
On July 14, 1955, Armstrong’s All Stars performed at Legion Hall in Hyannis, Massachusetts. Jack was there, this time with a “Brownie Hawkeye” camera and shot his first photos of Louis in concert:
One year later, on July 3, 1956, Armstrong performed at the Cadet Armory in Boston. Jack was present once again with his Brownie camera in tow and this time made sure no one would obscure his view of the trumpeter. Here are six photos from that evening, all scanned from the original negatives in 2016, 60 years after they were first taken:
After that, Louis left Jack’s radar for a few years as he graduated from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in 1958. Courtesy of Bradley’s close friend Mike Persico, here is Bradley’s graduation photo:
The following year, Bradley ended up in New York. He moved in with his father in Jackson Heights in Queens and looked for work on a ship, hoping to sail the seven sees. Already a fan of the music, he soon became a part of New York’s traditional jazz scene, frequenting places like the Metropole and the Copper Rail, taking photos whenever he could (a 1959 photo he shot of Billie Holiday is thought to be the last surviving image of her in performance).
Eventually, he ended up a jam session in a recording studio, featuring old-time musicians such as cornetist Ed Allen and clarinetist Cecil Scott. The session was run by a woman named Jeann “Roni” Failows. Failows eyed the 25-year-old Bradley and grilled him. “Whose your favorite trumpet player?” she asked. “Why, Louis Armstrong,” Jack answered. “Oh, him,” Failows responded with a dismissive wave as she started walking away. “Oh shit, I did it again,” Bradley later remembered thinking. However, it was an example of what he later called Failows’ “twisted sense of humor” as she quickly turned back to let him in on the joke and to let him know that he answered correctly.
Bradley didn’t know it at that time but Failows was about to have almost as much an impact on his life as Louis. Failows is only remembered by a few today but she was a fierce devotee of jazz, organizing sessions, jam sessions, writing columns about it and befriending many of the musicians, including Louis Armstrong. Thanks to a recent donation by her nephew Steve, we have received several letters Louis wrote to her beginning in 1948, as well as photo, such as this one, taken backstage at the Roxy in 1950. The room is crowded–Willie “The Lion” Smith is in the background–but it’s Failows who is the object of Armstrong’s affection.
Failows served an important role in Armstrong’s entourage: she helped with his fan mail. As he was often on the road 300 days a year, Failows would collect his mail either from his home or from Joe Glaser’s office and would sort through it, separating junk mail from simple autograph requests from personal letters that demanded a reply. In the mid-1950s, she began dating Paul Studer and introduced him into the Armstrong circle. Studer also liked to bring a long a camera and a few years ago, he and his family donated hundreds of images he shot of Louis at home, in the recording studio and backstage to our Archives. Here is a Studer photo of Louis and Jeann sharing a laugh while catching up on fan mail at home in Corona in January 1959:
Failows and Studer broke up shortly thereafter and their jam session meeting, she soon began dating Jack Bradley. Louis Armstrong was on tour in Europe for the first six months of the year, followed by a heart attack in late June and some time off to convalesce. It was then right back on the road for one-nighters through the fall, finally landing back in New York to headline at Carnegie Hall on December 26, 1959. Failows got tickets and would bring Bradley backstage.
At Carnegie Hall, it seemed as if all of New York had shown up in Armstrong’s dressing room. Jack was too nervous to mingle but he did bring his camera and some extra rolls of film and shot, by my count, 79 images that night. Here’s a selection, opening with Louis warming up, alone:
Pianist Billy Kyle had taken ill and Marty Napoleon was grabbed as a last-minute substitute. He hadn’t been an All Star since 1953 so clarinetist Peanuts Hucko and bassist Mort Herbert had to bring him up to speed:
The leader soon joined for an impromptu jam session/rehearsal:
Louis sings one, with manager Joe Glaser looking on from the background:
Sufficiently warmed up, Armstrong relaxed:
Bradley couldn’t resist getting a photo of Armstrong’s trumpet in its case:
Meanwhile, Lucille Armstrong chatted with trumpeter Bobby Hackett, who would also soon develop a close relationship with Bradley, the latter serving as his road manager in the 1970s:
Bradley then spotted the arrival of another of Jeann Failows’s friends, someone she introduced into the Armstrong orbit backstage at the Roxy in 1950, 30-year-old Dan Morgenstern, seen at left. Dan and Jack would become lifelong friends.
Finally, it was showtime. Here’s the view from Bradley’s seats:
Backstage, Armstrong changed out of his band uniform and got ready to greet the people, planting a kiss upon greeting Jeann Failows. Slim Thompson nearly got in the way but Jack still caught the photo:
Bradley caught a serious discussion between Armstrong and Hackett, the two trumpeters holding their hands to their precious mouths.
A more jovial scene was captured thanks to the presence of comedian Timmie Rogers, actor and comedian Slim Thompson and other friends:
Armstrong could get overwhelmed in crowds, even among friends, and seems to be feeling that way in this Bradley image:
One can’t blame him when realizing that besides the friends and musicians already gathered backstage, there was also a throng of fans patiently waiting for autographs. The stage door opened and Bradley caught a glimpse of what was waiting on the other side as Armstrong immediately started signing whatever was thrust in front of him:
Jack didn’t get any photos with Armstrong at that evening but it must have felt surreal to even be there. This all changed the next time Bradley attended an Armstrong performance a few weeks later, held in Tuxedo Park, New York, according to Dan Morgenstern, who was also present. There is a famous photo of Armstrong naked from the backside that has appeared in print and online over the years; Jack took that one here. Armstrong sure didn’t mind it. According to Dan, Louis’s response when he heard the shutter go off was “I’ll take one of those!” Jack remembered Louis saying, “Print up a thousand of them.” Sure enough, one print was blown up and hung prominently in Louis den in the early 60s, there to greet all who visited.
We’ve chosen not to share that delicate image here, but instead, here is one taken moments before or after, with Louis, Jeann Failows and Jack together. Again, Jeann was the linchpin; as Bradley later said, “Once [Louis] saw me with her, everything was cool.”
Jack still hadn’t mastered sneaking in performance shots–that would soon change–but here is one he took that evening of Louis and Velma Middleton ; she would sadly pass away one year later.
Jack had a slightly better angle when attending an All Stars performance at Brooklyn College on March 26, 1960, capturing this nice image from behind:
He also continued to take photos of friends backstage, including this one of Louis and photographer Nancy Miller Elliott, later used as the cover of the Nagel-Heyer Armstrong tribute album, We Love You, Louis!
Eventually, Bradley was invited over to Armstrong’s home in Corona, Queens for the first time. It was just the two of them in Armstrong’s den when Louis motioned him outside on his upstairs porch to talk to him. Bradley froze. Here he is again in 2008 telling Michael Cogswell and David Ostwald the touching story of what happened next:
The earliest photo we have of Jack and Louis at home is from 1962 and it’s a gem:
And with that, Jack Bradley could now consider himself a friend. Being backstage was always special but now Armstrong began inviting him to events the public usually did not attend: recording sessions, rehearsals, more private hangs. We’re going to close this packed part one but we’ll pick up the story in a few days with Jack–and his camera–in the early 1960s, attending record dates with the Dukes of Dixieland and Dave Brubeck, backstage at Freedomland in the Bronx, back home in Corona and a part of many more invaluable situations.
Once again, our condolences go out to Jack’s beloved wife Nancy to and to his close friends Mike Persico and Mick Carlon for all they did for Jack in his final years. We’ll do our part to continue to tell Jack’s story. His legacy and his photographs will never be forgotten. Thanks for reading and thank you, Jack Bradley.