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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Financial Director / FD / Senior Finance Manager

Up to 70k DOE: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Financial Director ...

Recruitment Genius: Instructional Training Designer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic and interes...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse & Stores Supervisor

£16224 - £20280 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Warehouse & Stores Supervisor...

Recruitment Genius: Windows 3rd Line System Administrator

£35000 - £39000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen