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Gene Dobbs Bradford is leaving Jazz St. Louis, which he led for more than two decades

Jazz St. Louis and the Harold and Dorothy Steward Center for Jazz on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in St. Louis, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Jazz St. Louis and the Harold and Dorothy Steward Center for Jazz

Jazz St. Louis President and CEO Gene Dobbs Bradford will step down in February after more than two decades of leading the organization to serve as executive director of the Savannah Music Festival.

Bradford announced his departure Monday. He will start his new role in Savannah, Georgia, in mid-February.

Under Bradford’s tenure, the venue expanded in 2014 to create the Harold and Dorothy Steward Center for Jazz in the Grand Center area of St. Louis. The $10 million renovation included an education center, a renovated performance space and lounge.

“What I wanted to do was to create an organization that would become one of the most respected cultural institutions in the city,” Bradford said. “I think we’ve been able to do that certainly with the help of really fantastic and very supportive St. Louis community.”

Gene Dobbs Bradford in a suit with a purple tie, standing in front of a dark background
Jazz St. Louis
Gene Dobbs Bradford

Bradford serves as host of the St. Louis Public Radio show, “The Next Set: Live from Jazz St. Louis,”which airs at 8 p.m. Fridays and Sundays on 90.7 FM and stlpr.org. Bradford took over Jazz St. Louis in 1999, four years after the institution began. He succeeded Barbara Rose after her death in 1998.

The institution, originally known as Jazz at the Bistro, has grown into a premiere destination for jazz musicians all over the world and is known as a premiere listening room in St. Louis. The center has presented national and international stars, including singers Al Jarreau and Harry Connick Jr., trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and pianists Diana Krall, Vijay Iyer and Alfredo Rodriguez.

Jazz St Louis also co-commissioned "Fire Shut Up In My Bones," by Grammy Award-winning trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, which this fall became the first opera by a Black composer ever performed by the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Bradford said the experience is one of his greatest accomplishments at Jazz St. Louis.

“I got into classical music because I wanted to see more Black people in the field,” Bradford said. “And here I was sitting there sort of looking at the end of my time at Jazz St. Louis, watching history being made at the Metropolitan Opera because of our efforts and because of the collaborative spirit, and the commitment to diversity, equity inclusion that arts organizations here in St. Louis have.”

Vocalist Denise Thimes, a longtime local favorite who splits her time between St. Louis and Chicago, said musicians consider their first gig at Jazz St. Louis to be a career milestone.

“In St. Louis, you had arrived when you performed on the stage at Jazz at the Bistro," she said.

"It has always been a room that has given St. Louis its best. And when Gene Dobbs continued the position that [founder] Barbara Rose so wonderfully held down, there were big shoes to fill and Gene filled them. And he also took it to several other levels,” she said. “He is extraordinary. Humble. An advocate for the artists and an extreme lover of the music."

Bradford has played harmonica with Thimes’ group at Jazz St. Louis on occasion, and she has sometimes appeared as a featured vocalist when Bradford led his own band there.

Jazz St. Louis introduces the music to many people in St. Louis, Thimes said. Some attendees at her shows there regularly approach her to say they were previously unfamiliar with the music. “I think that it continues to draw those kinds of people because what’s happening is that it’s the place to be. It’s the place to go,” she said.

Many of those the venue has exposed to the art form are young fans who benefit from what Jazz St. Louis gives to music education.

Bradford’s support of those efforts, and of local musicians, will be missed, pianist Adam Maness said.

“He’s leaving such a large footprint on our city and our scene,” said Maness, who has played Jazz at St. Louis several times and also participated in the organization’s education programs with local schoolchildren. Maness also performed during the world premiere of “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” at Opera Theatre St. Louis in 2019.

“I think his magic is to bring people together and to find the right idea for the right situation with the right people,” Maness said of Bradford. “And isn’t that what every organization wants their leader to be? I can’t imagine Jazz St. Louis or Grand Center or the St. Louis music community without Gene.”

In Savannah, Bradford will oversee a 17-day event that features jazz, classical, bluegrass and world music performers, and has an emphasis on educational programming.

Bradford said he’s excited to join an organization with a year-round commitment to a variety of genres. He looks forward to making the festival a bigger success.

“I think that one of the ways that I can help them is by really boosting their community engagement program, so that people in the Savannah community feel more a part of the festival,” Bradford said “I think that we can do things with programming that will help to broaden the audience and increase its scope.”

The Jazz St. Louis Board of Directors will put together a search committee to pick a successor.

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.