Jack Bradley (1919–2000) was a violinist who became one of the first Black members of a major professional orchestra in the United States as well as the first Black member of the Denver Symphony Orchestra when he played with the group from 1946 to 1949. Bradley came up through the Denver Symphony’s youth and community orchestras before earning a spot in the newly professional symphony after serving in World War II. Seeing no future for himself as a Black orchestral musician, he left the Denver Symphony in 1949 to teach music at Texas Southern University, a historically Black school in Houston. He demonstrated the ability of Black musicians to play with the top orchestras in the country but also confronted barriers to Black participation in classical music that still exist today.
Jack Carter Bradley was born on March 14, 1919, to Eva and Earl Bradley in Moline, Illinois. His grandparents on both sides of the family had escaped from slavery. Because his two older siblings had died at a young age, his mother’s aunt, Justina Ford, suggested that the family move to Denver, where she was Colorado’s first Black female doctor, so that she could look after Bradley’s health. The family moved in 1926 and lived for several years with Ford in Five Points. Bradley later recalled the community as “the ‘United Nations’ neighborhood,” a diverse area with “Blacks, Japanese, Chinese, Latins, Greeks, Jews, Italians and Anglos.” By the end of the 1920s, his family had moved east to Whittier, where his father opened a barbershop.
Bradley showed musical talent early in his life. He started when his mother gave him piano lessons at home. In 1929 she sent him to the Just Kids Orchestra, a Saturday morning group lesson put on by The Denver Post at the Knight Campbell Music Store downtown. There Bradley took quickly to the violin; after a few months, he won a solo playing award and started private lessons. He played in his local school orchestras, earned a spot in Denver’s All City school orchestra, and performed a variety of solos and recitals at Zion Baptist Church, which his family attended. After graduating from Manual High School, he enrolled at the University of Denver in 1937, where he studied music and played in the university orchestra as well as a student string quartet.
Bradley learned to play violin just as new classical music opportunities were emerging in Denver. In the mid-1930s, the decade-old Denver Civic Orchestra expanded to include a youth group, the Denver Junior Symphony, as well as a more professional orchestra, the Denver Symphony. All three were led by conductor Horace Tureman and business manager Helen Marie Black.
Bradley was a member of the Denver Junior Symphony from its inception in 1935. In 1938 Tureman gave Bradley a viola and taught him to read the alto clef so he could fill a hole in the Denver Civic Orchestra. Bradley continued to play violin for the Junior Symphony and viola for the Civic Orchestra, with occasional appearances in the Denver Symphony as well, until he graduated from the University of Denver in 1941 and was promptly drafted into the army.
Bradley served nearly five years in the army, where he remained stateside during World War II as a member and leader of army bands at bases in Oklahoma, Alabama, and Louisiana. Back in Denver in 1946, he auditioned to play violin for the Denver Symphony, which had become fully professional and hired a new conductor, Saul Caston. Caston gave him a spot, making Bradley one of the first Black members of a professional symphony orchestra in the United States. (Some Black musicians had performed earlier as soloists.) Bradley played with the orchestra for three years while also giving private lessons and studying composition at the University of Denver, where he earned his master of music degree in 1949. That year, an article in Ebony identified him as the first Black player in any of the twenty-five major American symphony orchestras.
In 1949 Bradley left the Denver Symphony. “I could not see much of a future for a Black violinist in the symphony field,” he later wrote. “I had no evidence that there was, for there were no other Blacks in any of the American orchestras.” Even as a few more African Americans were hired by professional orchestras in the late 1940s and 1950s, aspiring Black classical musicians continued to face widespread educational disparities and cultural messages pointing them toward jazz rather than classical music. If they managed to get the proper training and tried to audition for an orchestra, they still encountered segregated musicians’ unions and discriminatory hiring practices.
Amid that cultural landscape, Bradley contacted several historically Black schools and took a teaching position in the music department at Texas Southern University in Houston. He taught there for thirty-five years, serving as department chair for the final nineteen years before his retirement in 1984. After segregation ended in the 1960s, he played with the Corpus Christi Symphony and Baytown Symphony and served on the boards of the Houston Friends of Music and Houston Youth Symphony.
Bradley died of cancer on February 29, 2000. Although articles on the history of American symphony orchestras occasionally mention his role with the Denver Symphony, he tends to be neglected today. His pioneering role with the Denver Symphony is often assigned instead to bassist Charles Burrell, who joined the symphony in 1949, just after Bradley left, and had a long career with the organization. Bradley’s neglect is attributable in part to the fate of the Denver Symphony, which experienced decades of turbulence before declaring bankruptcy in 1989. But it also owes something to the ongoing racial disparities in nearly all American orchestras—including the Denver Symphony’s successor, the Colorado Symphony—where even today, despite the rise of blind auditions, less than 2 percent of musicians are Black.