It wasn’t a rehearsal or a late-night gig that kept Philly trombonist Jeff Bradshaw awake on the night of June 7.
After watching hundreds of Philadelphians protest police brutality — and having recently performed at a rally at City Hall — he was losing sleep thinking how he could be more involved. When he finally drifted off, he dreamed that he was standing at the top of the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, surrounded by hundreds of horn players.
Days later, on June 13, his vision was realized when more than 100 horn players gathered for a demonstration of musicianship and solidarity. And on June 27, they gathered at the Art Museum again.
“I think it’s so important for musicians to be heard right now,” Bradshaw said. “I wanted to gather every horn player I knew to play music to the high heavens for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for Philando Castile, for Trayvon Martin, for Michael Brown, for Ahmaud Arbery”
Bradshaw, 50, of North Philly, has been a part of Philly’s music scene for decades. He got his start playing the snare drums — and eventually trombone — in church at North Philly’s United House of Prayer for All People. He went on to tour with such acts as Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind & Fire, Jill Scott, the Roots, Common, Mary J. Blige, and others. Last year at the Marian Anderson Awards, Bradshaw performed in honor of Kool & the Gang.
The morning after his dream, Bradshaw reached out to low-brass player Sam Gellerstein to help organize the horn rally. Gellerstein was already brainstorming ideas for something similar and eagerly signed on.
To create buzz around the June 12 event, the two launched a social media campaign, complete with digital fliers and videos. “All skill levels are encouraged to join us,” one Instagram post promoting the event read. “The only important thing is that you are staunchly opposed to racial injustice.”
Saxophonist Hiruy Tirfe committed without hesitation when he received a text message from Bradshaw about the rally. Tirfe, who lives in Upper Darby, also saw the demonstration as a way to be more deeply connected to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Through music, we can get the point across that we want justice,” Tirfe said. “But we can also lift each other up as we fight for what’s right.”
On the day of that first demonstration, Bradshaw and Gellerstein encouraged musicians to make the most of the spacious Art Museum steps by standing at least six feet apart and to wear masks when they weren’t playing their instrument.
“We were trying to make sure we’re not getting in each other’s faces,” Gellerstein said. “We try to be as safe as we can” while performing.
North Philly drummer TreWay Lambert is also a night owl, but he woke up early to prepare for the demonstration. He was the only drummer among the musicians who attended the rally.
“I haven’t said too much [about the protests] because I’m a man of few words,” Lambert said. “But beating those drums was my way of showing the pain from the bullets and the chokeholds. That’s what was going on in my head.”
In between New Orleans-styled second-line songs such as “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Little Liza Jane” — and also during them — Bradshaw led the group in protest chants.
“Once we were in the groove, I broke it down to just the drums and the bass,” Bradshaw said. “I’d scream out, ‘No justice,’ and they’d scream out ‘No peace.’ We did that throughout the whole rally.” The event reached an emotional peak with the final hymn, “We Shall Overcome.” The hundreds of spectators that gathered at the steps swayed as the musicians wrapped up.
When Bradshaw was a child, he asked his father about his memories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s assassination. He asked about his whereabouts when Rosa Parks was arrested.