A Conversation With... Ray Bryant
Philly-born jazz pianist Ray Bryant enjoyed a stellar career, up to his death in 2011 at age 79. He performed and recorded with such greats as Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach, as well as such vocalists as Carmen McRae and Aretha Franklin.
In his later years, he built a reputation for his solo piano work, and jazz fans in Toronto reveled in the fact that he lived in the city for a period. One of those admirers was FYI’s Bill King, who had the following A Conversation with… Ray Bryant back in 1987.
One sweet night decades back I’m playing a jazz club on Wellington Street and in walks one of my heroes, pianist Ray Bryant. Bryant hangs through the set and then we talk. My side of the conversation trembled with admiration. When I was in my early teens I’d work my way through Fake Books and it seemed the songs I related most to were the ones composed by Mr. Bryant – "Con Alma" made famous by Dizzy Gillespie, a funky little groove by the Art Farmer and Benny Golson’s Jazztet - ‘Tonk’, and ‘Cubano Chant” – recorded by most every jazz great.
Dave Brubeck was hitting with "Take Five," not long after Herbie Hancock with "Watermelon Man," and Ramsey Lewis with "In Crowd." Bryant was there with the others and had that contemporary touch with a blues-sided "Little Susie" that rode the Billboard charts in 1960. We became instant friends.
We’d talk between tours and by then he was entirely settled in Toronto. Eventually, I pull him in for an interview at CIUT 89.5 – October 29, 1987 and got to ask him about those things musicians like to know.
Bill King: Philadelphia must have been an enriching environment for a young aspiring musician to be brought up. Were you aware of your surroundings?
Ray Bryant: I was there with so many of the guys who went on to become great: the Heath Brothers, Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown - he was around Philadelphia at the time, even though he was from Delaware, about 20 miles away. I grew up with Benny Golson and my brother Tommy, who is a great bass player.
John Coltrane also lived in Philadelphia. I met John when he was first released from the Navy; he was around 20 years old and playing alto sax. I came to work one night with a little band I was playing with and there was Coltrane. I said, “Who's this guy?” and they said: “This is John Coltrane. He just got out of the Navy and he's going to play with us tonight.” Even then you realized that here was a guy who would not be in the shadows of Charlie Parker; he had something else of his own.
B.K: Your first forays with the piano were through the classics. What was your training like?
R.B: At the age of six my mother sent me to the neighborhood piano teacher. She realized that no matter what I wanted to do the best thing would be to acquire a solid musical foundation and that would be through classical training. I've never regretted it.
Some people say I was I still have traces of classical training in my playing. There's no doubt about it. That's the best way to learn the piano. Go to a teacher and study formally.
As I grew older and started hearing jazz, I just naturally gravitated towards it. At the time there weren’t schools available so most things you just had to work out yourself. That came from experience and actual trial and error. I feel like those circumstances make for the formation of real musical identities.
B.K: Would you ask a musician of Benny Golson’s status to have a look at some of the tunes you may be working on?
R.B: I met Benny when we were just kids. One time we had a group together consisting of Benny, my brother Tommy on bass, myself with Benny's mother as the vocalist. We used to go out and do gigs on the weekend. Even then Benny was a genius. He's always been musically astute and talented and it was really a ball just being around him. He was 15, my brother was 14, and I was 12.
Once in a while, we would have jam sessions. Johnny Coles, the great trumpeter from Philadelphia used to give jam sessions at his house, which was right around the corner from where I lived. We were from North Philadelphia and there was the south of Philadelphia contingent who would come by with guys like Specs White and Percy and Jimmy Heath. Once in a while, someone will show up from New York like Charlie Rouse. The jam sessions were really getting to be known at the time.
B.K: Do you still use many of the same technical exercises from your early training?
R.B: As a matter of fact, I use the exact same exercises. I drive my lovely wife crazy around the house. She asks, “When am I going to hear the complete song?” You know I live in Toronto now and that main reason is that I met my wife here and got married. So Toronto is now the base of my operations. I've always liked the city and I've been coming here to play since the 50s when I was really just a kid.
B.K: Where were you performing then?
R.B: The first time I came here was to play the Colonial. I was working as an accompanist for a vocal group. A group of older Torontonians might remember them; they were called The Caldwell's. One guy and two girls and I was the piano player. The pianist who preceded me in the group was Ahmad Jamal. I would have vacation time in the summer get into the car and drive north, stopping in a couple of cities like Rochester and Syracuse, and then on to Toronto. I never realized I’d actually end up living here, but it's a great city and I like it very much.
B.K: Any other musicians in the family?
R.B: My sister is a music teacher in the Philadelphia school system and, as far as I’m concerned, she's the greatest gospel pianist in the world. She also plays classical is now moving into jazz. Her sons, I think you recognize these names, are Kevin Eubanks and Robin Eubanks. They are my nephews; my sister's kids. My mother was also musical; she played the piano. I guess we all received our musical abilities through her. My son plays Latin percussion, as a matter fact, I intend to have him record with me one of these days. I would also like to ask Kevin and Robin. Who knows we may make it a little family affair.
I can say, without any hesitation Kevin is a greatest guitarist on the scene today. There's no doubt about it. I had a great pleasure being on the same festival with him this summer in Helsinki, Finland. Kevin was absolutely stupendous. He had us all sitting around backstage with our mouth’s open. We were really looking forward to having him come up here and play Toronto on his own but I'm sorry it didn't happen this time. I'm sure he'll be coming up here sometime soon.
B.K: Did your style evolve from both the blues and stride piano traditions?
R.B: I would not consider myself too much of a stride pianist, even though I have been accused of having somewhat of a left-hand. The blues, yes, of course, my mother is a gospel minister. Gospel was the first music I heard. It’s sort of a combination of that plus the blues and more contemporary influences as well. I guess my style has evolved from there.
I do a lot of solo piano now. I really got into it in 1972 when I was called to play at Montreux Jazz Festival. It was my first time doing a live solo concert and it came off great. Since then, I've been playing more and more solo piano which involves continual use of the left hand. The place I'm playing right now Café Des Copains, has become a testing ground for a piano players. Can you play solo or not? You know that is strictly a solo room, and I guess everybody has been in there. Some like it, but some say “Oh, this is a really demanding gig.”
Playing solo piano is pretty demanding. You're out there all alone and you’ve got to do it all by yourself, but there's also a certain degree of freedom involved. You can really do anything you want to.
B.K: You set the atmosphere for the room.
R.B: That's right. There's nobody there but you.
B.K: What advantage does playing solo have over traveling with the unit?
R.B: The biggest advantage is that you take home all the money? It gives one the opportunity to express himself completely, without limitation. You're responsible for everything so you can't blame it on the bass player or drummer. It's hard work when you play a two hour concert - your back may hurt a little from the sitting so long.
The primary advantage is the opportunity for musical self-fulfillment. You do the best you can, you put all your own things in there, and the end product is the result of what you have put into it. You also have the advantage of changing direction anytime you want to, which I've done in the middle of tunes. Each night you hear something a little different. I have basic arrangements and songs but then sometimes I go off and do something a little different.
On the first night of my present engagement I was going to play "In a Mellow Tone"; I always play it up-tempo with a swing feel. Then, before I started to play, it came to mind “ Why not try as a ballad.” I did surprise myself. Things like this you can do you can do alone.
B.K: I guess there are times you scan the crowd and adjust by playing something specifically for the audience?
R.B: What you said is right. People ask “Do you know what you're going to play this time?” and I say “Well no, I do know what I'm going play first but after that it depends.” Generally halfway through what I'm playing I'm thinking about what I'm going to do next. That tends to depend primarily upon how the audience is responding and sometimes one tune calls for another – it’s called programming. Of course, I also keep tempos in mind and I try to vary them to keep it interesting. I don't play everything at the same tempo because that would bore the audience and myself.
B.K: Your performances consist of jazz tunes, standards, blues and possibly a folk tune.
R.B: From an outside glance you could say one may have nothing to do with the other, but actually they are related. I might play a rag, then something by John Lewis and some old dirty blues tune in the key of G. I think, along with the audience, all hangs together in the final analysis.
B.K: The early 60s seemed the era of the great jazz piano trios: Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Junior Mance, Red Garland and Bobby Timmons to name a few. You actually had a hit with a track called "Little Susie."
R.B: Yes, that was very big for me and clear across the charts. It’s also a time I would rather not talk about.
B.K: I guess every person has had a special moment when they were moved by performance. Can you think of any?
R.B: I would say that probably the most impressive performance I ever sat through would be when I was very young and my junior high school teacher took me to hear this piano player who was performing at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. It turned out the performer was Art Tatum. I would say that was about the most memorable performance I've ever heard by a pianist or anybody.
B.K: Did you go home after the concert and try to emulate Tatum?
R.B: I really didn't have much of an idea what he had done. All I knew was when he finished that was the best, and I really have heard nothing better.
B.K: What about groups?
R.B: There are many groups that I really enjoy. I've always enjoyed the Modern Jazz Quartet and I love the old Ahmad Jamal Trio with Vernell Fournier drums and Israel Crosby on bass. I also like the old Miles Davis quintet with Philly Joe, Coltrane, Cannonball, Jimmy Cobb and especially when Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly were with Miles Davis, along with some of that stuff when Red Garland was in the band.
B.K: What do you like to listen to when you're at home?
R.B: Art Tatum for sure, but I like to feel my mind is open musically, to many things. I listen to classical music. I love Horowitz and I think he's one of the greatest pianists of all time. The fact that he was a great admirer of Art Tatum only enhances that. I listen to jazz and the classics, but you might even find a couple of pop records around the turntable. I think that between my wife and myself we have the greatest music taste of anybody I could think of. We definitely get along musically, no doubt about that.
B.K: Do you draw from a wide range of composers for your repertoire?
R.B: One of my sets might include something by John Lewis and then something by Billy Strayhorn, Ellington or Monk and then sometimes something of my own or a tune by Avery Parrish, the old blues piano player. I would say my repertoire is pretty progressive as far as composers are concerned.
B.K: Was radio much of a factor in you becoming aware of jazz?
R.B: No, I didn't hear too much jazz on radio. What I heard on the radio was gospel, mostly my mother’s home. I got all this from actual playing with other musicians. When I was 12 I would get jobs playing with some of the great blues players about Philadelphia. I don't know how I happened to get in there but most importantly, I was there. I learned something from every one of those guys that I work with.
There were quite a few of those guys who made Philadelphia their home. They have been on the road with various bands but then the band era sort of died out, and some of them just settled in Philadelphia. They were jobbing around, fortunately for me; I was able to copy some of their stuff
B.K: Who were some of the blues pianists to influence you?
R.B: Tatum certainly played the blues. "After Hours" is still one of my favorite tunes and I still play that. Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson were influential on my boogie-woogie style. Earl Hines and Ray Charles were influences, but, of course, I was also affected by other instrumentalists. I think that Jimmy Rushing was the greatest blue singer who ever lived. I had the opportunity of working with him and making what I think was one of the best recordings. I also have had the opportunity to work with the great Joe Williams and I think Charlie Parker was an influence on me even though he played alto, as his ideas have always touched me big.