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

Steve Voce
Saturday 25 June 2011 00:00 BST

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.

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