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Jack Bradley, photographer of Louis Armstrong and jazz luminaries, dies at 87

Jack Bradley and Louis Armstrong.
Jack Bradley and Louis Armstrong.Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

Jack Bradley had idolized trumpeter Louis Armstrong since he was 15 and first heard the jazz legend’s music on a 78 rpm record in his family’s Cotuit home, so he was understandably star struck upon meeting him in New York City in the late 1950s.

“The first time I visited his home in Queens, I was so nervous that I was shaking,” Mr. Bradley told JazzTimes magazine, as he referred to Armstrong as Pops, his nickname. “Pops had a way of putting you at ease. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘It’s OK, man. We’re just two guys hanging out.’ "

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A jazz aficionado and talented photographer, he did more than simply hang out with Armstrong, who became his favorite photo subject. Mr. Bradley’s thousands of photographs of Armstrong — along with a memorabilia collection that included everything from handwritten setlists to laundry receipts — form the cornerstone of the collection of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York.

Also a longtime jazz promoter and manager, Mr. Bradley died March 21 in the Pleasant Bay Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Brewster from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 87 and had lived since 1976 in a Harwich house that over the decades became a jazz museum in its own right.

“Jack’s collection was beyond monumental, the world’s largest private collection of all-things Armstrong,” Ricky Riccardi, director of research collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, wrote in a tribute posted on his blog.

Jack Bradley.
Jack Bradley. Family photo

Though Armstrong was Mr. Bradley’s principal subject and muse, his photography wasn’t limited to the great singer and trumpeter. Among his thousands of other photos of musicians was what Mr. Bradley believed was among the last — if not the final shot — of Billie Holiday, when she performed in 1959 at a New York City theater a few weeks before she died.

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Mike Persico, a longtime friend who became Mr. Bradley’s assistant, archivist, and manager, is still cataloging thousands of his photos, including many that for now exist only as negatives.

“Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and people you’ve never heard of,” said Persico, a jazz trombonist, singer, and retired music teacher who lives on Cape Cod.

During years as a photographer, Mr. Bradley also held other jobs, including managing and road managing jazz musicians, managing a nightclub, and running a New York City jazz museum.

His overall jazz collection included some 25,000 recordings, including about 10,000 78 rpm records; more than 200 hours of 16mm films; and more than 10,000 pages of sheet music, along with books and magazines.

Mr. Bradley had also helped produce the Cape Cod Jazz Festival, beginning at the end of the 1970s, and was outspoken about what he saw as systemic racism in hiring policies by the Cape’s clubs and nightspots.

“Noticeable by their absence on the Cape are Black jazz musicians, hundreds of whom are available in New York City,” he told The Boston Globe in 1982.

“Many have expressed a desire to work on the Cape, yet seldom are any hired,” Mr. Bradley added. “Let us not forget that jazz began as a Black American folk music. Yet, here on the Cape, the Black jazz artist is usually denied employment in favor of a pale imitation (pun intended).”

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John Bradley III was born in Hyannis on Jan. 3, 1934, and grew up in Cotuit, the oldest of five siblings.

His mother, Kathryn Beatty Bradley, held a number of jobs, including as a hairdresser. Mr. Bradley was a young boy when his parents’ marriage ended.

Louis Armstrong and Jack Bradley.
Louis Armstrong and Jack Bradley. Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

As a teenager, Mr. Bradley was introduced to jazz and Armstrong’s music by Bob Hayden, a family friend who ran a house moving company.

“Jack couldn’t say enough nice things about Mr. Hayden,” said Persico, who is producing a documentary, “Through My Lens: Classic Jazz Visions with Jack Bradley,” which he hopes to finish in the upcoming months.

That first experience listening to Armstrong, on a 78 rpm record, stayed with Mr. Bradley. “I never heard anything like that before,” he recalled in a 2008 interview with The New York Times.

After graduating in 1952 from Barnstable High School, Mr. Bradley waited a couple of years before attending the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, from which he graduated in 1958.

“He had always liked photography,” Persico said. “One of his early pictures of Louis Armstrong was from when Louis played in Hyannis at the American Legion Hall in 1954. When Jack went to New York in 1959, he had his camera with him.”

From then until the early 1970s, Mr. Bradley mostly used New York City as his home on land between Merchant Marine voyages. “He sailed past the equator, to South America,” Persico said.

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For a year in the late 1960s, Mr. Bradley managed a club in Manhattan, and for a few years in the 1970s he helped run the New York Jazz Museum.

He also wrote about jazz for magazines such as Coda and DownBeat, and he was jazz trumpeter Bobby Hackett’s manager and jazz pianist Erroll Garner’s road manager.

Louis Armstrong, photographed by Jack Bradley.
Louis Armstrong, photographed by Jack Bradley. Photo by Jack Bradley, Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

In 1971, Mr. Bradley and Nancy Eckel, a teacher, met through mutual friends. They married in 1976 and soon settled in a Harwich house, where they stayed.

“He was delightful — he kept you laughing,” she said. “And he kept me happy and busy for almost 50 years. He gave me the most fun times in my life.”

To his work as photographer and jazz promoter, Mr. Bradley added cofounding the Cape Cod Jazz Society, founding a jazz record store, and serving as the disc jockey for a jazz show he produced on WFCC-FM on the Cape.

Until Armstrong died in 1971, Mr. Bradley often traveled with his friend, sometimes driving him to performances.

“What we had in common was this unending love for the music,” Mr. Bradley told JazzTimes. “Pops never sought fame for fame’s sake. He just wanted to play his horn. Louis had a message — a message about excellence.”

Much as Mr. Bradley loved music and respected other musicians, “Louis is my grand guru and idol,” he said in that interview. “I feel that everything great in music came from Pops. For me, jazz is two words: Louis Armstrong.”

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In addition to his wife, Mr. Bradley leaves a brother, Bob of Punta Gorda, Fla., and two sisters, Bonnie Lee Jordan of East Falmouth and Emmy Lou Shanley of Saunderstown, R.I.

A celebration of Mr. Bradley’s life will be announced for later in the spring.

Mr. Bradley’s photographs of Armstrong, which he sold to the museum in 2005, capture the musician in seemingly every sort of moment, on and off stage.

And though Mr. Bradley invested years of his life photographing Armstrong and archiving his memorabilia, it never felt like work.

Through their friendship, “I’ve been to Switzerland, Amsterdam, Hawaii, and New Orleans several times,” Mr. Bradley told JazzTimes. “Man, my friendship with Pops keeps giving me joy. Originally, it was the privilege of simply hanging with the man — now people want me to talk about Pops, which I do anyway, and they pay me! Hey, I’m always happy to spread the gospel.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.