Gene Dobbs Bradford tripled the budget at Jazz St. Louis since he took over as executive director of the nonprofit a decade ago, growing it to $1.2 million last year.
Bradford is holding his breath for 2009 funding, but the organization is on track to raise $1.1 million this year — bringing in avant-garde acts to Jazz at the Bistro in Grand Center, running education programs with area schools and identifying new talent for ensembles such as the Jazz St. Louis All-Stars and JazzU — while receiving support from local foundations.
“Jazz has never been popular music, but it’s still very much alive with a lot of musicians. We have to keep it in front of people,” Bradford said.
His work on that front takes a page from the Saint Louis Symphony business plan. Not a surprise, given that he was the symphony’s production manager before joining Jazz St. Louis. Bradford’s also a performer — mostly playing the blues on his harmonica, and occasionally the double bass, where he has his formal training, including a degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
He lives in Webster Groves with his wife, Maria, and their daughter, Mireille, where he finds time to study kung fu, run the St. Louis Marathon and work on his vertical leap, hoping some day to dunk a basketball. “I’m getting closer,” the 6-foot-4, 42-year-old executive confides.
Funding is much different at Jazz St. Louis than the Saint Louis Symphony?
We’re not making as much progress as we were at this time last year. We’re trying to build relationships with corporations and individuals to get people excited about what we’re doing. I still believe there are people who don’t know we exist, and people who’ve seen our shows who don’t know we’re a nonprofit. Last year we had $633,000 in contributions, with about $109,000 of that coming from individuals.
How big is your marketing budget?
Mostly it’s direct mail, about $80,000.
Shouldn’t Jazz at the Bistro stand on its own?
We’d love to see that happen. We’re already to the point where most of the concerts cover their direct costs. But we don’t get any of the food and beverage revenue. The restaurant is operated by a whole different organization. Some jazz clubs out there bring in a big part of their revenue from drinks and food. We don’t get any of that. So we make up the rest with contributions.
Do you still play the bass?
Only a little bit. You have to practice a lot if you want to be any good, and it’s hard to practice. My instrument is on permanent loan to Jazz at the Bistro. Nowadays bass players don’t travel with their instruments the way they used to. It’s too difficult with travel restrictions.
What about the harmonica?
The harmonica you can practice in the car. I started playing it in college to earn money for chicken wings and beer. I put together a band and did the advertising. It’s one of the things that got me into the management side of music. It was as much fun doing all the publicity as it was doing the actual gig.
You came to St. Louis from the Honolulu Symphony. Was it hard to leave paradise?
If you were to say, ‘Do you want to vacation in Hawaii?’ I would go in a second.
I wasn’t making a lot of money at the time. When you hear ads that say, “prices may vary in Alaska and Hawaii,” they mean it’s going to be a lot more expensive. I still got to hear some great music, but I missed the seasons. I’ll never forget sitting there one Christmas day in my shorts thinking this is not right.
It’s hard to stay in touch with people on the mainland. Hawaii’s six hours behind the East Coast. I actually moved back to Maryland and spent several months looking for work until the Saint Louis Symphony job came up.
How did your symphony background prepare you for Jazz St. Louis?
The Symphony had a bad defeat trying to link with the Zoo-Museum District. They learned a lot of lessons from that. One of the things was the days of putting great music on stage and expecting people to appreciate your value in the community were over. They had to find new ways to connect with the public. They started more education programs and outreach. I’m trying to do that with Jazz St. Louis
Outside of your family, who influenced you growing up?
It was my high school band director, Lewis Dutrow, at Wilde Lake High in Columbia, Md. He’s a teacher who loves what he does just as much as performers love to get up on stage. He got me set with a bass and got a new bass brought in.
Did your parents push you?
I was No. 2 of five kids. They did in terms of pushing us to work hard and value education. My dad, who’s also Gene Bradford — he’s a minister in Maryland and a builder — probably would have liked to see me do more sports, but he still came to all my events. I have brothers in professional sports. Jack played for the Philadelphia Eagles, and George is a professional golfer on the Canadian Tour. Maybe I was trying to differentiate myself.
Was music always a part of your life?
I played violin a little bit in elementary school. They moved me up to viola because my hands were too big. I was a sophomore in high school when I started playing the double bass. I’d only been studying the double bass privately for about nine months when I auditioned for the Eastman School.
You met your wife, Maria, here?
I was working at Powell Hall. Maria came over to set up a Grand Center board meeting. I don’t think I saw her for another year. I’d been asking how does one meet nice young ladies here, and she came to an event wearing an evening gown that belongs in the evening gown hall of fame.
What does success look like for you?
If people in St. Louis would say to friends coming in from out of town that they have to go to a Cardinals game, they’re going to have dinner on the Hill and going to go hear some jazz — so no St. Louis experience is complete without jazz.
Another way success would look is when someone auditioning for the only spot in a college jazz group heard they were up against someone from St. Louis; they would know they’re up against stiff competition and better bring their “A” game.
Who’s got the hot jazz education program now?
SIU-Edwardsville. They have some great teachers there, like Reggie Thomas, who’s on the staff at Jazz at Lincoln Center (New York) and assists in their programs.
Your online page lists 40 things you wanted to accomplish when you turned 40. Did you finish?
I finished the half Ironman, I ran the marathon. I returned to studying kung fu. I think it’s good to vary your exercises. But as I was starting this, I was accepted to the Washington U. Executive MBA program. That was not on the list, so some things on the list got delayed.
What They Say
“In 1995, Gene and I worked together on a Symphony tour of Japan, and Maestro Leonard Slatkin had an idea that we should give a concert for the people of Kobe, where there was an earthquake. The roads were out, and Gene had to figure out how to move an orchestra and equipment to the town. He worked out logistics.”
Jim Mann, Taylor Family office
“Where he is happiest, and where he shows it the most, is when he plays his harmonica. He has his own band and sits in with ours and other groups.”
John Wuest, president, Jazz St. Louis board
“He wanted to improve himself, so he joined a Shaolin Kung Fu school. He wanted to improve his running, so he trained and completed a marathon. He wanted to improve Jazz St. Louis, so he got an MBA. He wanted to do more blues, so he put together a band. He excels at all these things.”
Chris Hesse, partner, Bobroff, Hesse, Lindmark & Martone