Ray Bryant, 1931-2011

Ray Bryant died on Thursday in a New York hospital following a long illness. He was 79. A pillar of modern mainstream piano, Bryant was often categorized as a blues pianist. He was certainly that, a great one, but his stylistic breadth, powerful swing and harmonic flexibility put him in demand not only by blues singers and players but also by the most sophisticated modern jazz artists from the 1950s on. A list of a few of his colleagues and employers gives an idea of Bryant’s range: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Jack Teagarden, Carmen McRae, Zoot Sims, Betty Carter, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie and Jimmy Rushing. Bryant was from a Philadelphia family that included his bassist brother Tommy, who died in 1982, and three nephews prominent in jazz—Robin, Kevin and Duane Eubanks.

Among his compositions adapted by others, “Cubano Chant” and “Blues Changes” were influential. He had hit records in “Little Susie,” “Madison Time” and “Slow Freight.” Bryant’s first solo album, Alone With the Blues (1958) is a basic repertoire item, essential to any reasonably comprehensive jazz collection. The CD and vinyl versions are, inexplicably, out of print and going at auction for as much as $185. The album can be had for significantly less as an MP3 download. It includes his memorable treatment of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair.”

For more about Ray Bryant, see Nat Chinen’s obituary in The New York Times.

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  1. says

    Ray worked as accompanist in the late 50’s, early 60’s, for the off-Broadway version of David Frost’s THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS. He was suddenly called to do a road gig and Sheila Jordan suggested to Ray that I could handle the gig. He gave me a call, and I took the job. It lasted 6 months before Frost decided to take it on the road. I was asked to be musical director of the road gig and used a trio for the skits and entre act overtures. I wrote and arranged all the sequences. The actors were exceptional and mostly from the UK except for one whose name escapes me at the moment, but John Cleese joined the road tour. He is now the John Cleese. Every skit was improvised. The best part for me was when the audience was asked to give a book title. Taking turns, the actors would invent a song using the words. I either followed or pushed them. Quite a thrilling experience.

    Five years ago for an Al Cohn-Zoot Sims celebration at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, the producer, Bob Bush, sent me a CD of Ray playing a blues. He wanted to use that blues as part of the celebration’s program. Bob asked me to call Ray for the lead sheet. As I listened to the track, I got the feeling that Ray had improvised the tract. But it was so good, I was convinced that he had composed it. I said, I’d better call Ray. Sure enough, he did improvise everything! He didn’t sound too well over the phone, but he gave me the honor of taking the time to explain the song. Of course we reminisced about the Frost gig.

    I am most grateful for Ray’s help over the years and, of course, saddened by his passing. I know that he’s still wailing in another dimension. He was a gentle man and a great all-’round piano player. A great talent…….RIP

  2. Rob D says

    Thanks to Jack and Doug for the memories of Ray. I used to have an LP copy of “Alone With The Blues,” but it was lost along with a pile of other jazz records in a home burglary that still saddens me years later. They can keep the TV and other household items, but I will take the records back no questions asked!

    That is a beauty rendition of “Rockin Chair”…nice way to remember a great piano player.

  3. says

    I had not thought Death had undone so many, but posts of late across the internet come too frequently now with bells tolling and saxophones waning, pianos echoing into cold silence and memories percolating like second-line mourners on the return. More and more Jazz people of the last 60 years are stepping away, leaving us, like Ray, alone with the Blues. But if you listen harder, their fading voices say, “Keep dancing.”

  4. O'Sullivan, Red says

    FOUR nephews prominent in jazz: Robin, Kevin, Duane AND David Eubanks: the genuniely important bassist who died a tragic death at an especially tragic age… He was Dexter Gordon’s bassist for a period perhaps totaling a year, in the ’80s…

    • Doug Ramsey says

      Good catch, Red. You can see and hear David Eubanks with Gordon, Kirk Lightsey and Eddie Gladden in this YouTube clip from a concert at California’s Paul Masson winery, probably in 1983. The film credits misidentify the bassist as Rufus Reid, but it’s Eubanks. A fifth Eubanks brother, Charles, played piano.

  5. George Ziskind says

    Last time I saw him up close was at St Peter’s Church, 4 or 5 yrs ago. He was called up from the audience to do a tune. He played Newk’s “Paradox.” He had forgotten the bridge (which is a tad tricky even when one knows it), and kept playing the outside (the tune’s first 8 bars in this case) over and over again – for six or seven minutes. Not to flaunt – just stating a fact here – no one in the audience was aware of this; they all thought that what he was playing was the correct version of the tune.

    Nevertheless, this tipped me that for some reason or other, Ray was not 100% together in this performance. Additionally, he had considerable difficulty in walking the 25 feet from his seat in the audience to the piano bench. His gait was forced and there evidently was something amiss with his feet or his legs.

    However, warts aside, what he played – and how he delivered it – was magnifico Ray. He invoked all of his special magic, that curiously wonderful amalgam of beboppy churchy piano.

  6. Peter Levin says

    Many thanks for the post on the marvelous Ray Bryant. Now for the complicated part. While there are five Eubanks nephews who are (or were) fine jazz musicians, I believe that only three of them are Ray Bryant’s nephews: Robin, Kevin and Duane, from the Philadelphia Eubanks branch. The late David and Charles are from the Detroit Eubanks branch, and are not blood relatives of Ray Bryant, since neither of their parents is a sibling of Ray’s. David and Charles played on their cousin Kevin’s first album Guitarist (still one of his best), which is probably the source of the continuing brotherly confusion from the city of brotherly love! Any Eubanks is worth a listen, though. Charles is an interesting pianist who started in Motown and has spent most of his career as an educator in New York City. He is a fine solo pianist, and has also worked with Dewey Redman, Rashied Ali and Butch Morris, among others.

  7. Tim Blangger says

    I’m honored to say I met Ray Bryant at a birthday party (for Ray) that was held in Allentown, PA where Ray had some family. The event also marked Mr. Bryant’s 50th year in music and the hosts had T-shirts for everyone at the party. Kevin Eubanks, who is related to Ray, was also there. I never had the pleasure of hearing Ray perform. I attended as at the invitation of the party’s host, and I worked at the local newspaper at the time, where I did occasional jazz articles. I asked him about where the Blue Note was in Philadelphia, where he had performed many years ago. There were several other journalists there and I think — but don’t or can’t ever know — that Ray appreciated that I had done a little research and asked some questions that suggested I had. I saw the NY Times piece on Ray and thought back to that party and the small time we spoke. I know I speak for all readers of Rifftides in extending my best thoughts to Ray’s extended family.

  8. GA Russell says

    I would add Gotta Travel On from 1966 on Cadet to his list of hits. His album of the same name was my second ever jazz record. It featured Clark Terry and the recently departed Snooky Young.

  9. says

    Ray Bryant, gee, on how many great jazz dates did he play! — Here, for all who would like to dig deeper, a link to his discography.

    I’m glad that I have found a very good copy of “Alone With The Blues” some 15 years ago in a 2nd hand LP store. It’s a real treasure, and it should be in the collection of any aspiring young (jazz) pianist.

    Ray Bryant had this full, dark, and nevertheless pearly touch at the piano which can only be achieved by practicing also classical literature. ∽ When viewing the track list of his last album In The Back Room (2008), I suppose Fats Waller was among his early heroes. Nat ‘King’ Cole was the other. (One can also listen to 30 sec. samples at the site.)

    I have posted a fantastic track at my blog, Gigi Gryce’s super fast “Smoke Signals” with the Dizzy Gillespie Octet (1957) where he demonstrates quite a bit of his brilliance. ∽ R.I.P. Ray Bryant

  10. says

    Thanks for the recollections and tributes to Ray Bryant. I came to jazz after developing an appreciation for blues masters like Otis Spann and Big Maceo and Pete Johnson, so Ray Bryant was an immediate attraction. I had the immense pleasure of seeing him a few times at Bradley’s with bassist Jimmy Rowser; and a night at Sandy’s in Beverly, Massachusetts where Ray and George Duvivier and Alan Dawson worked with the blues-soaked front line of Arnett Cobb, Buddy Tate, and Cleanhead Vinson. Talk about down home! The Texans spent the better part of a week at Sandy’s, and now how I wish I’d been there every night, but back then it was still possible to take VSOP’s of this kind for granted and figure it’d happen again soon.

    I’ll pay memorial tribute to Ray in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode with selections from his solo and trio recordings and his work with Miles and Newk and Bu and Carmen and Tiny Grimes.

  11. says

    I put this on the Organissimo forum the day after learning of Ray’s passing, and if you don’t mind, I’d like it to be here, too…

    “Well, I’ve been thinking on this since last night. I got to know Ray well in the mid-sixties when he played Toronto a couple of times a year (in those days one would play a club for a couple of weeks), and even better when he lived in this city for half a decade after marrying a local woman. His house was a five-minute walk from mine, and we often had cocktail hour together.

    “The late John Norris (of Coda Magazine and Sackville Records renown) was a particular champion of his, bringing Ray over and over to the Cafe des Copains and Montreal Bistro in solo and trio settings throught the ’80s and ’90s. I recorded them all for radio broadcast (one session was released as North Of The Border Label M 495741, with Harry Anderson on bass and drummer Winard Harper).

    “One thing that always amazed me about Ray was that he rarely touched the piano if he wasn’t playing a gig (read: being paid!). That doesn’t mean he didn’t take it seriously — it was just that he knew what he wanted to play, and would be able to pull it out as needed.

    “He didn’t seem to ever push beyond his own style, but style was not his target — style was what Ray used to take aim. He could walk up to a piano and instantly bring forth the most intimate, swinging, bluesy playing matched only by, perhaps, Junior Mance…

    “The church was his foundation (his mother was a preacher), and while I certainly wouldn’t have called him ‘religious’, he would often play a little spiritual (and a favourite of mine): “If I Can Just Make It Into Heaven”. I think he probably made it there last night.”

  12. says

    FOOTNOTE to my comments of June 4th on Ray Bryant;

    The comedian with “THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS” downtown, village area, whose name escaped me. IS…….BOB KLEIN , now know as, ROBERT KLEIN. His song improvisations were the best of them all. It was “as if” we had composed them.

  13. John Evans says

    I am just having a memorial listen to a much loved trio album called Here’s Ray Bryant, recorded for Pablo in 1976. The last track is a wonderfully simple composition called Prayer Song which has been lodged in my brain since the day I first heard it played on the radio as a new release. RIP.

  14. says

    Goodbye, Ray. You, Amad Jamal, Miles Davis and I beat out many blues in the basement of the Dunbar Hotel in DC. Your influence was so very great. I am now 76 years old and have lost another great from my life. RIP

  15. Ann Romeo says

    I had the fortune to hear Ray live, well, probably 50 times–whenever he played Seattle, and several times in NY, from the mid 1970s through 1990s. His tone is always amazing–you can hear him anchoring Aretha on her first album, and Betty Carter, and so many others. I love his style and his class, and the way he fills the spaces. Best blues jazz pianist I’ve ever heard.

  16. marietta meister says

    Thanks for sharing Ray Bryant’s, “Rockin’ Chair.” May he rest in big peace.

  17. M says

    Ray played our little upright piano in my living room when I was 10 years old or so! He was a friend of our friends – a family where the mom, dad, and all the kids played jazz.

    My sister and I were fortunate that our parents took us to jazz clubs when we were kids.

    I remember how big his hands were. Loved it!