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Ray Bryant: Through the Years

On the opening track of Ray Bryant’s 1995 album Solo Live in Tokyo: Plays Blues and Boogie (EmArcy), part of the audience begins clapping on “two” and “four,” part on “one” and “three,” and a third faction somewhere in between. Bryant continues unfazed, never missing a beat, eventually bringing everyone in line. His authority, momentum and unerring sense of swing can sweep an audience along with him.

Like Ellington, Tatum and Monk, Bryant has an immediately identifiable sound, for after only a few notes there is no mistaking the player. And watching Bryant play solo piano one gets the feeling that he is truly part of a continuum that goes back to James P. Johnson and Fats Waller.

“His music might sound easy to play, but it requires so much concentration,” says bassist Rufus Reid, who has recorded often with Bryant. “The collective groove is all-important. He gives you freedom, but within those parameters. You can tell right away by his body language if he’s getting what he wants-he doesn’t have to say a thing.” Indeed, one glance from Bryant is usually all it takes to rein in an overly enthusiastic drummer. As the late Freddie Waits, a longtime associate, once said, “He really straightened out my time. All young drummers should have the chance to play with Ray!” Drummer Winard Harper, who works often with Bryant, adds, “Ray plays such pretty melodies and everything is danceable. When he gets into a deep groove like on ‘Slow Freight’ it’s like a train picking up steam!”

Bryant is not an innovator but has combined the key elements of several styles into something wholly his own. Early in his career he formed his basic approach and has spent the last six decades honing and refining it. The pianist has always transcended artificial stylistic boundaries, enjoying nearly universal acceptance even during the traditional/modern skirmishes that were still flaring up when he first arrived on the scene in the mid-1950s. His broad appeal is not surprising since Bryant’s style draws heavily upon the music’s most basic sources-most notably the blues and gospel-and combines them with the harmonic sophistication and rhythmic variety of later styles. He uses the entire keyboard, his powerful left hand alternating crashing chords with stride and boogie-woogie figures while his right spins delicate filigrees reminiscent of his first idol, Art Tatum. And Bryant delivers it all with impeccable musicianship and relentless swing. He is so consistent that it is easy to take him for granted.

Born in Philadelphia on Christmas Eve, 1931, Bryant comes by his varied influences honestly. “The first music I heard was gospel,” he recalls. “My mother was an ordained minister and a self-taught pianist, so I spent a lot of time in church. She gave me my first lessons.” Bryant’s father also played piano and sang, and Ray’s older brother Tommy, who died in 1982, was a highly respected bassist and close musical partner. Another brother, Len, is a singer and drummer based in Philadelphia. (The Bryant family’s musical heritage continues with Ray’s nephews, Kevin, Robin and Duane Eubanks, who are the sons of Ray’s sister Vera, herself a pianist and vocal teacher.)

Bryant’s mother recognized Ray’s potential and sent him to a teacher when he was five years old. His formal training was classical, a foundation that he found invaluable, and the pianist’s professional career began at age 12: “I would play for dances, and they’d sneak me into bars. I’d get four or five bucks a night, which was good money then.” At 14, Bryant became the youngest member of Local 274, the black musicians’ union in Philadelphia.

Bryant’s epiphany occurred when a high school teacher took him to his first jazz concert, at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. “It opened with a local band led by a wonderful pianist named Jimmy Golden,” Bryant recalls. “Next came the Teddy Wilson Trio. Finally, this guy sat down all alone at the piano. I was absolutely astonished by what I heard. It was Art Tatum. From that moment on, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

But the young pianist’s budding jazz career did not go over well in his church: “They used to bring me up front and say, ‘Sister Bryant’s son is playing music for the devil. We hope he will change his ways!'”

Bryant became part of the vibrant Philadelphia jazz scene of the late 1940s and early 1950s: “I hung out with guys like Philly Joe [Jones], Benny Golson and the Heath brothers. We used to have little jam sessions at the home of [trumpeter] Johnny Coles.” The pianist also recalls an early encounter with John Coltrane: “He joined a local band I was working with for one engagement. He was playing alto then and played it beautifully. Although some things he did were reminiscent of Charlie Parker, you could already hear his own thing.”

In 1948, guitarist Tiny Grimes came through town and took the 17-year-old Bryant on his first tour. After a two-year stint with Grimes, the pianist returned to Philadelphia. Bryant’s trio backed visiting jazz stars at the local clubs like the Blue Note, where he worked with such luminaries as Roy Eldridge, Stan Getz, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins. Davis and Rollins were so impressed with the young Philadelphian that each brought him to New York to record in 1955. The Davis session (Miles Davis and Milt Jackson Quintet/Sextet, Prestige/OJC) even included a Bryant composition, “Changes.” “Miles definitely knew what he wanted,” Bryant says. “He told me to play my chords a little shorter-not to let them ring so much.”

Of the Rollins date (Worktime, Prestige/OJC), Bryant laughs and says, “My biggest memory from that session was playing fast, like on ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business,’ which we did with the verse!” Also in 1955, Bryant was paired with Betty Carter on Meet Betty Carter and Ray Bryant (Epic, reissued by Columbia/Legacy), an important “debut” album for both artists.

In 1959, after a stint as Carmen McRae’s accompanist, Bryant decided to make the move to New York where he continued his eclectic musical education: “I spent my afternoons at the Metropole with guys like Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Shavers. Then at night I’d go down to the Five Spot and play with the younger guys like Benny Golson and Curtis Fuller.” The pianist felt completely at home with both groups, explaining, “A C chord is a C chord no matter where you find it. I never made a conscious effort to play differently with anyone.” Indeed, as the recordings clearly indicate, so timeless is Bryant’s style that he has always managed to fit into any context while still sounding like himself.

Two of the veterans with whom Bryant forged close relationships were trumpeter Charlie Shavers and drummer Jo Jones. “Rehearsing with Charlie was a lot of fun,” recalls the pianist. “We’d arrive at his house around noon, and he’d always have something on the stove for us. So we’d eat and talk, and by three or four we might get around to actually rehearsing two or three tunes!”

In 1959, Jo Jones approached Bryant and his brother, Tommy, about forming a trio. Bryant learned some valuable lessons from the venerable drummer: “He could sense when you weren’t relaxed and would say, ‘Take your time and breathe!’ He also taught me about pacing a set. I still use his format today.”

After leaving Jones, Bryant formed his own trio, and in 1960 John Hammond, the legendary talent scout and indefatigable jazz booster, signed him to Columbia. “We had more than just a producer-artist relationship,” says Bryant. “I felt like I was almost a member of his family.” Bryant’s first album for the label contained his huge hit “Little Susie.” “It was born during my days with Jo Jones,” he recalls. “We had no theme song, so he said, ‘Just play some blues,’ and I ended up with this little theme which evolved into ‘Little Susie.'”

Soon afterward, Hammond took Bryant to Baltimore, where a new dance, the Madison, was beginning to take off. The producer asked the pianist if he could come up with some appropriate music. “Years before in Philadelphia I’d written a little R&B thing which Percy Heath suggested I call ‘Shuckin’ and Jivin’.’ When I saw the dance I remembered it.” The piece was a perfect fit and, as “Madison Time,” became another hit for Bryant. (In 1988, it enjoyed a second life in the John Waters film Hairspray.) Also through Hammond, in 1967 Bryant played at the 30th anniversary From Spirituals to Swing concert, where his impromptu duet with ailing boogie-woogie legend Pete Johnson was an emotional highlight.

In 1963, Bryant recorded the first of four albums for Sue, a soul label known as the early home of Ike and Tina Turner. In 1966 he moved on to Cadet, which recorded him in a variety of contexts, from trio to orchestral. The range of material was also varied, mixing jazz standards with pop hits of the day. For example, Take a Bryant Step is undoubtedly the only album to contain both “Ode to Billie Joe” and Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’.” The pianist also supplied several imaginative charts for horns and strings on that and other Cadet albums. “When I was 12 or 13, I wrote a thing called ‘Railroad Jump’ for a whole orchestra,” he recalls. “I never actually studied arranging. I learned the range of the instruments and just started experimenting.”

The commercial success of hits like “Little Susie” as well as his “crossover” work for Cadet raised the ire of some purists. “It never bothered me,” responds Bryant. “I was playing things I enjoyed and, in many cases, like ‘Little Susie,’ had been playing in clubs for years. Miles Davis used to come hear me play and ask for it, so that was good enough for me!”

In 1972, Bryant answered the critics with a stunning solo recital at the Montreux Jazz Festival (Alone at Montreux, Atlantic/32 Jazz). Although he had recorded solo before (the 1958 classic Alone With the Blues, New Jazz/OJC), Bryant was apprehensive. “This was my first time in Europe and there were, like, 10,000 people there,” he says. “But once I started playing I felt that the people were really behind me and things just started to happen.” That recording helped reestablish Bryant’s jazz credentials and created a new demand for solo appearances. “Playing solo is very demanding; you have to be in pretty good shape,” he notes. Of his version of “Take the ‘A’ Train,” which involves an unremitting uptempo boogie-woogie bass figure sustained over several minutes, Bryant says, “When I finish playing that and hold my left hand up limply, that’s no act!”

Many of Bryant’s solo interpretations have become set pieces, often inspired by big-band performances. “I loved the Basie band and used to go hear them every chance I could,” he says. “I try to transfer some of the sections of the band to the piano.” These solo works are often like carefully crafted sonatas with dramatic changes in mood, tempo and dynamics. Bryant has a knack for transforming traditional gospel and folk tunes or jazz standards like “‘A’ Train” into new and wondrous solo masterpieces. For example, in his hands John Lewis’ “Django,” as heard on Through the Years, Volume One (EmArcy) and Somewhere in France (Label M), becomes a virtual capsule history of jazz piano.

After a four-year stint (1976-1980) with Norman Granz’s Pablo label that yielded five solo and trio albums and felicitous encounters with such horn players as Benny Carter and Zoot Sims, there is a seven-year gap in the Bryant discography. “The record companies didn’t bother me and I didn’t bother them,” he laughs.

Bryant was drawn back into the studio by producer Kiyoshi “Boxman” Koyama, a great admirer who met the pianist at the 1972 Montreux festival. Between 1987 and 1995, Bryant recorded some 10 albums for Japanese Polygram on the revived EmArcy. Bryant’s latest recording, Godfather, was done for M&I, another Japanese label, but has not yet been released in the U.S.

His most recent domestic release, 2000’s Somewhere in France, has an interesting genesis. Another fine live solo outing, it was recorded during a 1993 tour at an unidentified venue, hence the title. “It was made from a cassette I happened to have lying around here,” Bryant explains. “Luckily, it was done on a very good piano and recorded by a good engineer and it sounds as good as any studio recording.”

While best known as a player, Bryant also ranks as one of jazz’s most prolific composers, quietly compiling a vast body of work in a wide variety of idioms. His pieces have been recorded by George Shearing, Cannonball Adderley, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Cal Tjader, Harry James and Larry Coryell, among many others. “My tunes just sort of happen,” he says. “I never sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a song.’ An idea will just come to me while I’m doing something else and if it sticks, I develop it into a tune.”

Bryant’s compositions share many of the attractive melodic and rhythmic qualities that make his playing so widely accessible. While best known for the Latin “Cubano Chant” and a host of blues-based numbers like “Little Susie” and “Slow Freight,” the pianist has also written some lovely pieces in a more lyrical vein. These gems include gorgeous ballads like “Lullaby” (Solo Flight, Pablo) and “Darlin’ Marilyn” (All Mine…and Yours, EmArcy), the waltz “Where the Wind Blows” (Up Above the Rock, Cadet), the calypso “Hold Back Mon” (Here’s Ray Bryant, Pablo) and the unique cross-cultural tour-de-force “Be-Bop Irishman” (Groove House, Sue).

Bryant recently completed a project that should bring some well-deserved attention to his songs: “We decided that some of my tunes might lend themselves to lyrics. So we went into the studio with the English singer Tina May, who wrote the lyrics, and a band with arrangements by Don Sickler. We did the recording mostly for promotional purposes, but it came off pretty well so we hope to put it out.”

Unfortunately for his fans in the U.S., these days the pianist works more in Europe and Japan than at home. He has also cut down his schedule considerably, working only when and where he wants to. “I don’t take a lot of the little gigs I used to do,” he says. “I’m in a state of semiretirement-or increased selectivity.” But he quickly adds, “I don’t think I’ll ever fully retire. I regard all time off as ‘retirement.’ Then, when the next interesting gig comes along, I unretire!”

Originally Published