How I Learned To Make Music – By Scott Bradlee

I was a terrible music student when I was a kid.

I started formal piano lessons at age 9, but my parents found out very quickly where piano fell on my list of priorities.  I didn’t practice, and responded to the corrective measure that my teacher introduced-a practice log, to be filled out each day- by filling it out with fictitious amounts on the car ride over to lessons.  My shrewd teacher saw through my ruse, but, to her credit, she never called me out directly as a liar.   Instead, she conveniently went on vacation and filled her schedule for the next semester before my mom could sign me up.  My piano career had seemingly ended at age 11, and I was overjoyed.

Me at the age that I took piano lessons. I was more interested in dressing like Sinbad back then.

Me at the age that I took piano lessons. I was more interested in dressing like Sinbad back then.

It was that summer that I discovered George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and from there, the sound of jazz. This was the kind of piano playing that my adolescent self could relate to: loud, brash, and with plenty of contempt for rules. I could barely read music, but I became determined to learn how to play this style, no matter how many hours is took. My parents were confused.

Rhapsody In Blue was really hard.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that the sheet music was well beyond my skill level.  It seemed like some passages legitimately required a third hand (I later found out I had was actually a piano reduction, meaning that it wasn’t just the piano part of the orchestral score that I heard Leonard Bernstein play, but the entire score for all instruments just kind of mashed together into two staves). Undaunted by this, I tore into the score in the same way that I read books (or write blogs, for that matter) – I skipped around to the interesting parts first.

The “interesting” parts to me at this time were the jazz-influenced bits; the fast piano runs and chromatic passages, the majestic main theme, the slow blues riff that led to the American Airlines commercial part (sorry, Gershwin). These passages sounded like nothing I had ever heard before, and I began slowly picking them apart, trying to discover their inner workings. Before long, I began reading up on Gershwin’s non-classical influences, and decided that I needed to explore ragtime and honky tonk piano, reading about its history and practitioners.


“Maple Leaf Rag,” the next piece that inspired me.

From there, I discovered stride piano and heard Fats Waller play A Handful Of KeysI couldn’t find any sheet music for it, but I was able to build upon what I had already learned about ragtime and picked out a good chunk of it by ear. I devoured books about early jazz and it’s key figures: Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke.  I took out CDs and cassettes by the dozen from my local library, putting my headphones on and rewinding passages while I sat at the piano, trying to mimic them.  My repertoire grew: Black Bottom Stomp by Jelly Roll Morton, Black and Tan Fantasy by Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “How High The Moon.”  Hours flew by at the piano, sometimes just experimenting.   I was not yet in high school at this point, but I was already hooked.

Looking back years later, I realize that this type of makeshift music training was the best kind of education I could have received.  I wasn’t learning technical things – I couldn’t even play scales correctly – I was learning a love for music.  Without that love, I would have never had the nerve to pursue a career in music against all odds.  Without that love, I would have happily accepted that pop music sounds the way it does today because no one cares about older styles of music.  Without that love, I would have never have met so many inspiring, creative musicians that helped me create the community that is Postmodern Jukebox.


Download / Order “Bad Blood” from our ‘Swipe Right For Vintage’ album:

If your dream is to become a musician, don't just learn to play an instrument or sing well.  Find what inspires you, and dive into it with a passion that screams, "This is all I want to do, every day."  Because that's what it takes.



[some passages from the above are reprinted from my piano course, "Ragtimify"]

  • Alex

    That’s a terrific origin story, Scott. Like you, I fell in love with the music of the Gershwin Bros, Fats Waller, et al. at a young age. Now that I have my own kids (two of whom I recently took to a PMJtour show!), your music is helping me to bridge the gap between the music of their generation, and the glorious sounds of yesteryear. You want to bring #RealMusic back? More power to you!

  • It is that moment when your life turns, and you realize what you really love. Awesome. Thank you for sharing this personal part of your life.

  • Zita Vagoniene

    ” I wasn’t learning technical things – I couldn’t even play scales correctly – I was learning a love for music.” – It could be said about any piece of art. Thank you.

    • Daisy Jackson

      Post modern jukebox is such an inspiration to kids like myself, they teach not just how to sing and play instruments, but to be inspired. I got some tickets for my birthday to go and see them and I can’t wait to see there talent live!

  • Joyce

    This kind of ties in with a newer learning concept called unschooling. Just read about it. Kids are encouraged to learn their own passions and not an assigned routine. Certainly worked in your case, although you also went to school along with your self schooling.

  • Jeff

    I always enjoy reading how an artist got-to-where-they-are. I’ve long been a fan of Terry Adams (NRBQ) and his story shares similarities with yours. Although musical time is foreign to my brain, I know what is music to my ears–and no better way to hear it than through the piano. I think you’re onto something with PMJ. Sure have me hooked.

  • Rich Gurska

    Funny that you mentioned the Maple Leaf Rag…..a little more than 5 years ago I was searching YouTube for that Maple Leaf Rag, it was that song reminded me of an Western themed arcade shooting gallery at Canobie Lake Park in Salem NH where I used to go as a kid. At the shooting gallery you had a rifle that shot a beam of light, hit the target near an object, and it came alive, hit a pot or pan and it clanged, hit the buzzard on the water pump, and it flapped it’s wings and it squawked, hit the target on the Piano, and it played old timey music that sounded like the Maple Leaf Rag…at least that is how I remember it. Anyway……while searching for that song, YouTube suggested another video of some scruffy haired kid playing a medley of 80s hit songs done in ragtime, I was hooked. This guy Scott made the songs that I grew up listening to sound better in a geeky kinda way, no offense. At the time I was one of the first 500 people to have watched that video, and I have watched it more than once or fifty times since. Oh, and this guy Scott had the same Fender PA that I had, how bad can he be?
    I have been a fan and follower ever since. Thrift Shop was a turning point, and then it grew 10 fold when you did “Royals” with Puddles (btw I’ve been to all 3 of your Boston shows, and I got tickets to see Puddles again at his 2nd Boston gig in January)
    It has been fun watching your star get brighter, and I can honestly say that I knew you when….

    • brad

      Spot on about Thrift shop and Royals!

  • Regina

    I’m really enjoying this blog, Scott. Thanks for sharing part of your life, your career, your story.

  • Taylor Strack in Hartford

    Thanks for sharing and the inspiration, Scott.

  • Larry

    Great blog post – really enjoyed reading it. Many parallels here to how I learned to program computers. Loved it first, learned it later.

    Oh, btw, those were United Airlines commercials 😉

  • David

    Yeah, inspiring stuff. Keep us posted, hell of a thing is happening out there. Best wishes to the crew, and here is a ditty of mine, hope you enjoy it.

  • DKENDALL Grigsby

    Follow your bliss…

    If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.

    When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss,
    and they open the doors to you.

    I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid,
    and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.

    Joseph Campbell

  • Leonardo

    Wow, so cool to know about your history..

    Thank you Scott..

  • We are so thankful for what PMJ has done for our family, giving us a connection point between music we like and music our teenagers like. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  • Conceptually unique … a breath for the blues…. your directing is incredible…
    Hope to meet up when you are in UK… I can come and photograph some of your sets when you are near me, Oxford, Bristol or London…. Some of my work on festivals… etc, … have many more … hate to bore… . or FB lots of celeb photos…

    Let me know your thoughts… photos would be yours to use… no cost.

    Just crazy about your directing!… so in touch… nice….
    I came out of the SFX film side .. many years ago… can appreciate good directing when I see it.. preamble here.. if interested.

    Hope to hear from you…
    Keep on impressing…
    All the best
    Philmit Photography..

  • Kevin

    My friends thought I was weird because of my love of big band swing and jazz, then along came Scott Bradlee! Thanks maestro! Do you have any old vids floating around of your early cocktail bar gigs?

  • Jessica

    I’m loving this website Scott. I’m learning so much more than I thought I would. Just being a fan of Postmodern Jukebox is an understatement at this point. Getting to be apart of this PMJ community is an honor and I can’t wait to see what you do next. The talents you bring to light and the music you create are just the beginning and I’m glad I get to be apart of that. Thank you so much!

  • Bob

    Here is an interview Scott was good enough to give me last month

  • Gary

    This was great to learn. The quality of your work has me not surprised that you would have a story like this? But there is something else going on with PMJ I am not sure how to describe, but I expect it is why you are so wildly successful. Most of your stuff is very riveting, I’m glued and hanging onto the immediacy of every word. Your artists are incredibly ‘present’ and giving every ounce. Generally every person I see in the videos is totally loving what they are doing. I can’t wait to see you Thursday night in Sacramento.

  • Kay Diers

    Looking forward to hearing you on tour in USA or Europe in 2016.
    Will you be headed back to Europe / Germany after June 3, 2016?
    In early June 2016, my trip in Germany begins.

    Please come to Upper Midwest USA.

  • emily b

    Do a version of “Creole Love Call” !

  • [email protected]

    Congrats Scott, you and your team are precious and have a contagious new jazz style, I love PMJ…you must go to Brazil for shows. I am sending your Youtube posts as much as possible to my network there. Antonio R.

  • mschmidt

    I saw PMJ in San Diego (Encinitas, actually) the day after Gunther Schuller died, and the radio was explaining how he made a major contribution to the revival of ragtime in the 1970s. I was wondering whether you felt you might have owed something to Mr. Schuller.

  • angelo ragnatela

    What words, thank U Scott!!!…this post is a real good coincidence for me and if you have a little time to spend for a private message, I will be glad to tell you how it is great for me….please contact me when you can…..thank you in advance

  • Atom

    As an aspirining jazz arranger and amateur songwriter myself, it’s fascinating to me what your roots are. How I wish I had the good fortune of starting out with practical music education instead of just academics. 5 years ago, when I first began studying music theory, I didn’t even know what a chord was. I had no musical experience apart from elementary school-level knowledge (which isn’t much where I’m from). Now, at 25, I’m nearly graduating a collegiate music production course, and looking forward to entering the world of professional jazz arrangement. And I must say, your work has been instrumental (heh, pun) to my scholastic success. I have a long, long way to go in terms of arranging talent, but if I ever turn out to be even a tiny bit as good as you, I wouldn’t need to ask for more. I am privileged to be inspired by you. Thank you for everything, keep up the fantastic work, and I wish you even more monumental success!

  • Eric Neuenschwander

    If I was stuck on a deserted island and could only listen to one piece of music for the rest of my life, It would be Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Easily one of the most important and influential pieces ever written.

  • Stephen Larner

    Great, well illustrated and inspiring piece. I love what you do Scott.

  • As always, Scott, wonderful advice and inspiring. Thanks for sharing. ^_^

  • asdasdsa