Ray Bryant: Pianist who established himself as the epitome of soul jazz

One of the second line of master pianists, Ray Bryant was unique in mixing better than anyone else churchy traditional blues and gospel with more sophisticated and dextrous "modern" chords and rhythms.

His beefy playing, based as it was on a resonant rudimentary jazz left hand, caught the ear with its authority and was easy to identify. Even in what turned out to be his old age, it had a youthful joy and hope about it that was most infectious.

While it was fashionable for his generation of pianists to be influenced by the bebop playing of Bud Powell, Bryant's style grew first out of his listening to the mainstream players Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum. Powell's innovations he incorporated later. He was able to master that most difficult of jazz forms, the solo piano album, and throughout his career he made half a dozen of these, beginning in 1958 with Alone with the Blues and concluding in 2008 with In the Back Room.

His versatility called on him to work with old hands like Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins, and he was always able to provide them with helpful accompaniments which yet stuck to his roots in the blues. Only Oscar Peterson and Horace Silver among the latter-day giants similarly exploited the blues in more sophisticated surroundings. But even they didn't have the primitive conviction that showed through in Bryant's playing.

He had the popular touch, his style developing through stride, boogie-woogie and blues. He became the epitome of soul jazz and rose in public estimation through his leadership in such popular dance crazes as the twist and the Madison. But he was uniquely able to combine popular music with specialist jazz and so his Madison Time album (1960) featured jazz trombonist Urbie Green and trumpeter Harry Edison, while his main twist album, Dancing the Big Twist (1961), was graced with the more inventive jazz solos of trumpeter Joe Newman and tenor saxophonist Buddy Tate. He had a hit in 1960 with a composition named after his daughter, "Little Susie", a tune he had recorded first in 1958 when he was a member of the trio led by Jo Jones – and which he recorded again several times later in his career. Other hits of his were the jazz composition "Cubano Chant", recorded by Art Blakey and Oscar Peterson among others, "Cold Turkey" and "Slow Freight".

He was the most distinguished of the many jazz musicians to come from Philadelphia. He made his name there in the 1950s, playing first in 1949 for the guitarist Tiny Grimes before joining the house band at the Blue Note Club in 1953. Here he backed visiting heroes like Gillespie, Miles Davis, Lester Young and Charlie Parker among the constant flow of jazz greats visiting the city. His brother Tommy was the bassist in the band.

In New York in the mid-'50she became, more by accident thanany planning, the house pianist atthe Prestige record company, oneof his first recordings in 1955 being with Davis and Milt Jackson. Sessions with Rollins, Coleman Hawkinsand other giants followed and in that year he also recorded the album Meet Betty Carter and Ray Bryant, also a debut album for the super jazz singer, for Columbia.

From 1956 to 1957 he worked as accompanist for another great singer, Carmen McRae, and in the spring of 1957 he recorded a refreshing album, Afterglow, with her. He played at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival with Hawkins and Roy Eldridge. The session sold massively on record and Bryant achieved further eminence. It wasn't until 1959 that he moved permanently to New York where he played regularly with groups led by Charlie Shavers and Rollins.

Bryant toured worldwide, making his first visit to Britain in 1978 with Lionel Hampton. But he became particularly popular in Japan where he toured every two years during the 1990s with nine other top-ranking pianists, including John Lewis and Hank Jones, in a package called "100 Golden Fingers". During his career he made about 25 albums for a dozen or so labels.

Ray Bryant was the uncle of the trombonist Robin Eubanks and guitarist Kevin Eubanks, two other Philadelphians to distinguish themselves nationally.

Raphael Homer Ray Bryant, pianist and composer: born Philadelphia 24 December 1931; married (one son, one daughter); died New York 2 June 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

£32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

£27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Are you a recent graduate loo...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is a mul...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine