(CNN)2017 swept into the record books as the most destructive hurricane season in US history. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria forced millions to evacuate, leaving families from Texas to Puerto Rico fearing that they might never see their homes again.
It’s a feeling that’s only too familiar to Louisiana native John Michael Bradford — and one he will never forget.
“I just cried so much,” Bradford said, recalling the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“It was definitely traumatic, not knowing what was going to happen. We’d see the news every day, all the craziness happening. Our friends are losing homes. It’s just hard.”
It was especially hard for Bradford, who was a young boy when Katrina hit.
“I was about 7 or 8 years old, waking up on a Saturday morning, and suddenly my parents turn on the news, and they said we have to evacuate.”
Bradford, with his family and some friends, evacuated from the New Orleans suburb of Metairie to a friend’s house in San Antonio, Texas. Despite the cramped living conditions, Bradford’s family tried to keep things as normal as possible. Bradford was enrolled in a new school but found that he wasn’t ready for the change.
“I couldn’t bear being in another school. I couldn’t mentally focus,” Bradford said.
The sounds of home
It was a family friend, Sam Williams, who gave Bradford his first real sense of home. Williams, his girlfriend and her younger brother had evacuated with Bradford and his family to San Antonio.
Williams and Bradford didn’t know each other before Katrina forced them into the same house. But Williams had something that piqued Bradford’s interest: a trombone.
“Sam was the first time I had been around a trombone, and his sound is so big and warm,” Bradford recalled. “It really made me feel good to hear music and that New Orleans funky style.”
Williams is the front man and trombonist for the “NOLAdelic PowerFunk” band Big Sam’s Funky Nation.
It was music that gave Bradford not only the comfort of home but a sense of purpose. “I gravitated towards him. I wanted to be like Sam.”
Playing with inspiration
Bradford and Williams spent a couple of months together in Texas before heading back to their respective homes in the New Orleans area.
But Bradford was coming back a changed person with his heart set on one thing: playing music.
“For a year and a half, I kept asking my parents for a trombone. Then, for Christmas, my grandfather gave me his high school trumpet. Immediately, I was able to play.”
Born with natural musical ability and living in the birthplace of jazz, Bradford took up the trumpet and never looked back.
Williams started inviting Bradford to play with Big Sam’s Funky Nation, and eventually other seasoned New Orleans musicians took notice of Bradford, as well. “I was invited to play in Jackson Square with all the older musicians,” Bradford said.
“They pushed me in front of the audience and made me be the leader. I’m the youngest person there, but they pushed me to be a leader.”
Tuning into destiny
Bradford’s musical gift has now taken him from the streets of New Orleans to performance halls around the world, playing shows in Japan, in Sweden, at Carnegie Hall in New York, even at the Grammys.
His first album, “Something Old, Something New,” came out last year, and he’s studying at the Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship.
Even though Bradford feels that music was his “destiny,” he credits his evacuation experience with Williams during Katrina for putting him on his current path. It was surviving that trauma that steered him toward a new life. It’s a story he hopes will inspire those affected by disasters everywhere.
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“I always think back to Katrina. I always think back to Sam and about those times when I just dreamed about being a musician. Now that I’m doing it and seeing that people really love what I’m doing, I can’t even explain how it makes me feel.
“For me, it was a tragedy turned into a blessing,” Bradford said. “I think music can turn a tragedy into something that’s beautiful because it can touch so many people. It’s universal.”
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