Ray Bryant, the gifted gospel-tinged pianist whose work straddled many different jazz styles from Dixieland and hard bop to blues and R’n’B and enjoyed some chart success, has died aged 79.
Whilst working as house pianist at the Blue Note club in his native Philadelphia in the ’50s, he played with an astonishing lineup of all-time jazz greats including Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young and Miles Davis. He was also part of an incredible musical family – his mother played piano in church, his brother Tommy was a renowned bassist and other brother Len is a singer and drummer. Their sister Vera Eubanks is a gospel organist and pianist, while her three sons Kevin, Robin and Duane are jazz stars of the ‘Young Lions’ early 1980s generation playing guitar, trombone and trumpet respectively.
Bryant began classical piano studies at the age of six and also played tuba and double bass in various school bands. He was drawn to jazz at a very early age, attracted by its natural fusion of gospel and the blues, and made his first unreleased recordings at the age of just 14 in a band that featured local tenor players John Coltrane and Benny Golson. At this time, he was also playing Dixieland jazz at Billy Kretchmer’s club in Philadelphia.
He joined the R’n’B group Tiny Grimes and His Rocking Highlanders in 1949 and began to develop his trademark rumbling two-handed style heavily influenced by gospel players. His stint playing in the house band at the Blue Note in 1953 gave him the confidence he needed to head for New York, and a new career beckoned there with recordings for Blue Note and Prestige, some featuring Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. Bryant became an extraordinarily versatile and dependable sideman, playing with Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge at the Metropole Cafe on Seventh Avenue in the afternoons and Donald Byrd and Golson at the Five Spot in the evening. He even had time to act as singer Carmen McRae‘s accompanist for two years, and later briefly joined Dizzy Gillespie‘s band.
Bryant moved into the most lucrative period of his career, going solo and recording a series of trio albums for Columbia Records featuring Jo Jones on drums and his brother Tommy on bass which spawned the famous ‘Cubano Chant‘, covered by artists as varied as Cal Tjader, Art Blakey and Steely Dan, and hit singles ‘Little Susie‘ and ‘The Madison Time‘. Later in 1967, he hit the charts again with his version of Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billy Joe‘.
Bryant remained very busy during the ’70s and ’80s recording five acclaimed albums for Pablo, concentrating on trio and solo piano formats. In the ’90s, he played regularly at European jazz festivals often in a duo with guitarist Russell Malone. His final live solo piano album, In The Back Room, was well received and emphasised how crucial his contribution had been to the art of solo piano.
Bryant is survived by his wife Claude, his son, Raphael; a daughter, Gina; three grandchildren; and Len and another brother, Lynwood. Tommy Bryant died in 1982.
Ray (Raphael Homer) Bryant, born 24 December 1931; died 2 June 2011