"PHILLY, y'all really in here?"
About halfway through his May 28 concert last year, Jeff Bradshaw asked the Kimmel Center crew to turn the house lights up. The trombonist had no idea if the 2,500-seat Verizon Hall was sold out or not. He had been busy coordinating the schedules of a slew of artists - including the Roots' Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, Take 6 and Trombone Shorty - to perform on the live album he'd record that night, "Home."
When the lights came on, Bradshaw scanned the theater upwards until his eyes reached the highest balcony. Every seat was filled.
"It brought me to tears to see the whole city in that place, pack that place up," Bradshaw said recently.
"Home," Bradshaw's third album, will be released on Tuesday. Bradshaw will celebrate with a show at the TLA that night, accompanied by Black Thought, Eric Roberson, Kenny Lattimore and, he promised, a few surprise guests.
Bradshaw's musical journey began in the church. The North Philadelphia-born musician said he wasn't a "street kid." His household was very religious. His father, Norman Bradshaw, was a youth minister at the United House of Prayer for All People and played multiple instruments, which influenced Jeff Bradshaw to start on the snare drum when he was 4 or 5. Other instruments followed, expanding Bradshaw's repertoire.
"I played trombone as soon as I was strong enough to hold it," Bradshaw said. His father, who died in 2012, is his No. 1 influence still. The watch he wears every day is one that belonged to his dad, who gave it to the younger Bradshaw for his 40th birthday.
A lyrical style
Bradshaw is a self-taught musician who never took private lessons in his youth. He's since learned to read sheet music, but he said that learning to play in a more emotive manner has benefited his music style.
"My father taught me to play the lyrics and the words of songs," Bradshaw said. "He taught me a lyrical style of playing the trombone. He taught me to play like a vocalist. The only way I knew how to play was to sing. He was like, 'Sing, make it sing. If I can't hear the words, it means nothing.'"
Bradshaw participated in public-school music programs in middle and high schools, and he considers it important to keep these opportunities in schools today.
"I had options," Bradshaw said. "I had the opportunity to express myself creatively. Between there and church is the reason why I am who I am now."
After high school, Bradshaw joined the Army Reserve. When he returned from Fort Sill, Okla., he immersed himself in the Philly music scene, frequenting such hotspots as Silk City and the now-closed Circa and Jake and Oliver's, with the likes of Jill Scott, who Bradshaw has recorded and toured with.
Bradshaw also has recorded with Michael Jackson ("Butterflies," from the album "Invincible") and Erykah Badu ("Other Side of the Game"). He traveled with many musicians, including Jay Z on the European leg of the rapper's "American Gangster" tour.
"It's like traveling with the president," he said of his Jay Z stint.
That magical night
With 22 years of live performing experience, Bradshaw wanted to capture the energy of his live sound on a record. He approached Kimmel Center artistic director Jay Wahl in November 2013 and, in six months, the massive production became a reality - a feat that Bradshaw, a member of the Baptist Worship Center Church, credits to God.
Getting so many artists together wasn't easy, especially when one of them, Black Thought, performs every weeknight with the Roots as the house band on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon."
"He had to finish at 'Fallon,' get in the car and get right on the road," Bradshaw said, adding that Black Thought entered the Kimmel Center a mere 10 minutes before he had to go on near the show's end.
"We've done shows before that we've recorded," Wahl told The Key, WXPN-FM's music blog, last year. "But this is different because we set out to create an evening that we were going to record, which is kind of a different premise. Jeff is a fine musician, he's performed here with us in our smaller venues, he's performed at venues across town, he's toured with some unbelievably well-known musicians around the country and the world, and the idea of this recording is to bring him home and celebrate the success that he's had."
Bradshaw remembers the whole night at the Kimmel Center as "magical" and "completely divine," but said that something particularly special happened during Kim Burrell's performance of Musiq Soulchild's "Love."
"After she sang, she started to encourage me in the song," Bradshaw said. "She started to encourage and improvise me in the song, and I lost it. If you listen to the song, you can hear it. It gives you chills. I began to weep. I was weeping, trying to play."
Bradshaw said he was also very emotional when Mayor Nutter presented him with a proclamation from the city before the Kimmel show last year. Bradshaw wanted the album's name to pay homage to his hometown, where his musical journey began.
"To be appreciated at home, it's like having a girlfriend or like being married, and hearing women tell you you look nice, you're sexy, and this and that all day long. But when you go home - that's the one that really matters," Bradshaw said. "Like, you really want your wife or your girl to look at you and be like, 'Mm, what time you comin' home?' That's the appreciation that really matters."