Born into a musical family, Bryant is the uncle of the Eubanks brothers, although the haven’t had the opportunity to perform together. At this stage of his career, Bryant is able to perform when he chooses, especially in solo concerts. Although apparently reserved, Bryant took some time to share some of his experiences with Jazzreview.com.
JazzReview: Was your tribute to the piano players [Ray’s Tribute To His Jazz Piano Friends] the last new album you released?
Ray Bryant: Yes.
JazzReview: Is there a reason why you haven’t recorded more?
Ray Bryant: That’s just the way it is at this stage of my career. I’m not really interested in recording more than two or three times a year.
JazzReview: Has anyone asked you to accompany them on recordings?
Ray Bryant: I don’t do that anymore.
JazzReview: I understand that some tapes you brought back from overseas resulted in the CD, Somewhere In France.
Ray Bryant: I’ve known Joel Dorn [producer of Somewhere In France] for quite a long time. He was a jazz disk jockey in Philadelphia. I met him when we were both quite young.
Later, when Joel was with Atlantic Records, I was playing concerts at Montreux, Switzerland. It just so happened that the tapes were rolling while I was playing. Eventually, we released my album called Alone At Montreux.
Then, a little while ago, Joel called me and said he had a project in mind. He said the project would involve releasing existing material. He asked if I had any tapes of the performances I do around the world. I looked around my house and found quite a few cassette tapes that were presented to me after my concerts. They were lying in a plastic bag in a closet. After I took them to Joel, we looked through the tapes to see what we had. We came up with the tape that was used for Somewhere In France. The performance was very well recorded. The quality of the piano was good. We had a nice audience reaction.
JazzReview: You can’t remember where it was recorded, though.
Ray Bryant: See, there was no information on the tape at all. Nothing to go by. During the performance, I spoke a few words of French. From those words, we figured out that the tape was recorded "somewhere in France."
JazzReview: How many tapes did you have?
Ray Bryant: I must have had seventy-five or a hundred cassette tapes. Some of the tapes were of different quality. But Somewhere in France came out great. We couldn’t have done as well in a studio.
JazzReview: Will you release more of the tapes as CD’s?
Ray Bryant: Well, that’s possible. We have enough to make quite a few CD’s. Most of the other tapes involve solo work, but there’s some trio work too. I found one tape of a concert in Switzerland with Jon Faddis. It was a solo concert, and as a surprise Jon came up to perform at the end of the concert. Jon and I had a real surprise when we were half-way through our performance. Up walked Dizzy Gillespie on the stage. We got all of that on the tape too.
JazzReview: Most of your work now consists of performances.
Ray Bryant: Right. I tour all around the world. I just came back from Japan a few weeks ago. Before that, I was at the North Sea Jazz Festival. I still go all over Europe.
JazzReview: Who was in your group?
Ray Bryant: I don’t have a steady group. There are certain guys I call when I need a group. Most of my performances now are solo. If I put together a trio, it might consist of Kenny Washington, Ray Drummond and sometimes Winard Harper.
JazzReview: Do you prefer to play solo or in groups?
Ray Bryant: I like both. Most other piano players prefer not to play solo. It’s not easy, you know. It’s more demanding than when you play with drums and bass.
JazzReview: How did you start doing the solo work?
Ray Bryant: One of my first LP’s was solo. It was called Alone With The Blues. Then I had two or three solo sets at Montreux.
JazzReview: You have a great history of recordings with jazz legends.
Ray Bryant: Yes. I’ve recorded with almost everybody at one time or another. My first recording in 1954 was with Betty Carter; it was also her first recording. Ike Isaacs was on bass, and Specs Wright was on drums. John Levy became Betty’s manager. He used to manage Joe Williams, Nancy Wilson and George Shearing. At the same time, he was managing Betty Carter and me. Neither one of us had released a recording yet. John got the idea to make a joint album. I saw John last year at a jazz party in Arizona, as a matter of fact.
After my first album was released, I did the recordings with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins. I was house piano player at the Blue Note in Philadelphia, and generally I got the call when someone came through town.
JazzReview: Your mother was a minister?
Ray Bryant: Yes. She played organ and piano, and she was my first teacher, I guess. She recognized that I had some talent, and she took me to the neighborhood piano teacher when I was six.
JazzReview: What was her name?
Ray Bryant: She was Mrs. Eleanor Bryant. After I started playing piano, my sister starting studying too.
JazzReview: You used to listen to Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum.
Ray Bryant: Yes, they are two of my heroes.
JazzReview: Did you ever meet them?
Ray Bryant: I met both of them. I met Art when I was playing in a place in Philadelphia. He had played a concert that night, but I had a gig. Around eleven o’clock that night, in walked Art Tatum. I became all thumbs right away! I was introduced to him, but he didn’t say much to me.
JazzReview: I’m sure you have a lot of reminiscences of the people you’ve met over the years.
Ray Bryant: Yes, some are printable and some are not.
JazzReview: What is one of the printable ones?
Ray Bryant: I met Monk when I first came to New York, and he seemed to take a liking to me. Once in a while, he would say, "Come on. Let’s go for a ride." I used to ride around with Monk in his Buick convertible from a club downtown or from the Baroness’ apartment.
JazzReview: You moved to New York in ’59.
Ray Bryant: That’s where all of the activity was. By that time, I was becoming more active in performing with guys from New York. Actually, Charlie Shavers got me my first apartment in New York. He had a friend who was in real estate. I was doing a lot of work with Charlie at the time, and we thought that it would be easiest to rehearse near Charlie’s apartment. I was the first member of the family to pull up stakes and move. After a while, Tommy [Bryant] moved here too. Of course, Tommy and I had recorded before we left Philadelphia.
I was very busy when I moved to New York. I had no problems. I already knew everybody. Once they found out I was in New York, my phone started to ring. I toured a little bit and played in some of the clubs like the Vanguard, The Village Gate and Basin Street East. As a matter of fact, we did a recording date at Basin Street East. Usually, my brother played bass, and I had Ben Riley in my group for a while.
JazzReview: When did you start touring in Europe?
Ray Bryant: I never went to Europe until 1972. I got a call one day to go to the Montreux Festival in Switzerland. Oscar Peterson had been scheduled to appear, but for some reason he couldn’t make it. The promoters were looking for someone to play solo piano. My name came up, and I got the call.
JazzReview: You didn’t record too much in the 1970’s.
Ray Bryant: There was a period when I didn’t record much at all. I don’t remember exactly the years. My discography could give that information.
JazzReview: The Japanese had presented you with a discography of over two hundred albums.
Ray Bryant: Yes. I didn’t realize that. Sixty of them were my albums as a leader.
JazzReview: You must have done well if you could choose not to record or perform.
Ray Bryant: Well, I wasn’t rich. I’m still not rich, but I’m comfortable.
JazzReview: You had met your wife about fifteen years ago?
Ray Bryant: Yes. She met me in Nice then, but we didn’t get together until about ten years ago. We eventually got married. She teaches French, Greek and Latin. My wife is also a sculptress. Also, she had started to study playing bass, but she doesn’t do it anymore. We still have the bass; I’m looking at it right now. She’ll never let the bass go. When I have rehearsals, the bass player doesn’t have to bring his own bass.
JazzReview: And your son, Buddy, lives across the street.
Ray Bryant: Yes. He’s in the photographic reproduction business. He plays Latin percussion too. He doesn’t play professionally, but he’s really good.
JazzReview: Do you ever get together to play?
Ray Bryant: Not really. We used to, but we don’t do it much anymore.
JazzReview: Since the Eubanks are your nephews, have you recorded with them?
Ray Bryant: No, I haven’t recorded with them. But Kevin and I are thinking about doing something together. Who knows? Robin may end up on it too.
JazzReview: They haven’t recorded as a family, have they?
Ray Bryant: No. We haven’t done anything like that yet.
JazzReview: Are you playing in any clubs?
Ray Bryant: I play in New York only about twice a year. The rest of the time I play outside the city or out of the country. The place my trio plays in New York now is the Jazz Standard.
There have been a couple of other recent highlights. My family gave me a party celebrating my fiftieth anniversary in the business. That was several years ago in Allentown, Pennsylvania. One of my cousins lives there in a big house, and they had like a party/picnic. They even presented me with a big plaque. Kevin, Robin and Duane [Eubanks] were there. A couple of guys from WBGO in Newark came too.
JazzReview: Did they ask you to play piano?
Ray Bryant: Well, they didn’t have to. We just gravitated to it.
Another occasion happened during one of my engagements at the Jazz Standard. I was inducted into the American Jazz Hall Of Fame. The organizers were looking for an occasion to award the honor. So they came by for the presentation while I was playing in New York. I have a nice plaque from that evening too. The American Jazz Hall Of Fame is organized by the New Jersey Jazz Society, and the awards are done in conjunction with the Jazz Studies Department at Rutgers. I played at Rutgers years ago for a program called Jazz From The Archives. I was honored to be the subject of the program. They played all of my older records. It consisted of two two-hour sessions. Rutgers has a museum with Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and Charlie Parker’s alto, and the Jazz Studies Department has a great collection of jazz-related items.
JazzReview: It sounds as if life is going well for you.
Ray Bryant: Things are going better than ever. I can enjoy things more than I could before. Music is music. You never get tired of it, you know. There’s always something new to learn. You can hear something you didn’t hear yesterday. Music is all around us-on the radio, CD’s, nature. If you keep your ears open, you’ll hear something you never heard before.