Ray Bryant, a jazz pianist with strong roots in the blues and gospel, died on June 2, 2011 at New York Hospital in Queens, after a long illness. He was 79. During his career of over five decades as a professional jazz musician, Bryant played with a who’s who of jazz and bebop artists, including Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins. He also backed various singers such as Betty Carter, Carmen McRae and Aretha Franklin (whose 1961 debut album on Columbia featured Bryant and his trio). Bryant recorded numerous albums with his own trio and his “The Madison Time” composition was a sensation for a period.
Bryant was born and raised in Philadelphia in a veritable hothouse of jazz talent. Bryant started playing the piano at just five years old. Both of his brothers, Len and Tommy, were jazz musicians as well. Bryant’s sister, Vera, played gospel and classical music on the piano and organ; she married William Eubanks, and the two parented a now famous jazz-playing clan, including guitarist Kevin, trombonist Robin and trumpeter Duane.
Duane Eubanks, Bryant’s nephew, said that his uncle had an enormous impact on himself and many other younger musicians. “I am truly grateful and proud of the accomplishments of my Uncle Ray,” wrote Eubanks. “He was blessed with an incredible touch and the ability to write catchy tunes. What I am most proud of is that his compositions successfully crossed musical genres. His music has influenced jazz musicians, afro cuban musicians, and even the hip hop artists/producers. His musical accomplishments and attitude are the result of being a part of an incredible time period. A time when the leaders of the pack were able to communicate, sometimes very harshly, exactly what they felt about your playing and offered this criticism to better your musicianship. At the same time, the younger generation respected the elders and yearned for the opportunity to learn from them on and off the bandstand. My uncle many times reminded me of the tongue lashings he was trying avoid receiving from the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Papa Joe Jones, and many others.”
In a piece in the January/February 2005 issue of JazzTimes, Bryant told Ed Berger that his mother was instrumental, literally, in his musical upbringing. “The first music I heard was gospel,” he recalled to Berger. “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.”
Here is an excerpt of the excellent profile of Bryant by Ed Berger from 2005:
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 is survived by his wife Claude, a son, Raphael Bryant Jr.; a daughter, Gina; three grandchildren; and two brothers, Leonard and Lynwood.
Here’s a video of a performance by Bryant and his trio from 1971: