Lest We Forget:

Ray Bryant (1931-2011)
By Ken Waxman

Everything played by pianist Ray Bryant, who died at 79 in early June, was suffused with the blues. In fact his best-known composition, “Little Susie” is a blues, while the LP which first brought him to national attention was 1958’s Alone With The Blues (New Jazz). Nonetheless Bryant was a lot more than a contemporary Jimmy Yancy. He was as comfortable playing with modernists as swing masters and even had a charted R&B hit with “Madison Time” in 1960.

Born Raphael Homer Bryant in Philadelphia in 1931, he was initially taught piano by his mother, an ordained minister, which explains his affinity for gospel styling as well as blues. Following classical piano studies, he was playing jazz in his teens. He jammed with locals such as drummer Philly Joe Jones and tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, and was later part of the house band at Philly clubs, backing visiting stars, including such older musicians as trumpeter Charlie Shavers and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins (both of whom he would record with in early 1960s) plus younger ones like trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Davis and Rollins each brought Bryant to New York to record, and he’s featured on the tenor saxophonist’s Worktime (Prestige) and the trumpeter’s Miles Davis and Milt Jackson Quintet/Sextet (Prestige) LPs. During that time he played on other all-star sessions, such as Dizzy Gillespie’s Sonny Side Up (Verve) and Max Roach’s Jazz In 3/4 Time (EmArcy)

Similarly in demand as an accompanist for singers such as Betty Carter, Aretha Franklin and Carmen McRae, Bryant further proved his versatility, when Jo Jones, the legendary drummer from the original Count Basie band, hired the pianist and his bass-playing older brother Tommy (1930-1982), to fill out his trio. Bryant’s late 1950s stint with Jones not only taught him pacing, but a then unnamed theme he wrote became “Little Susie”, which established his solo career. Another Bryant line which has become a jazz standard is “Cubano Chant”, subsequently recorded by groups as different as Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Cal Tajder’s Afro-Cuban combo. “Madison Time”, was composed after Columbia record producer John Hammond asked the pianist for a tune based on the Madison, a popular Baltimore dance. The 1988 film Hairspray included his version of the song. Oddly enough, Bryant’s only other chart success was an instrumental version of “Ode to Billie Joe” in 1967.

Despite these pop successes, Bryant will best be remembered as a rooted jazzman and versatile pianist who could play with everyone from traditionalists to modernists without altering his individual style. Besides Alone With The Blues, his artistry is captured in other albums such 1966`s Slow Freight (Cadet) plus 1972`s Alone At Montreux (Atlantic) and 1978`s All Blues (Pablo).

—For New York City Jazz Record August 2011