The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
I remember it was the summer of 1976 and I had found my way to the Capital Jazz Festival at Alexandra Palace. Half way up the grassy slopes to the Victorian vestige I came virtually face to face with a pianist playing a solo All the Things You Are on an improvised wooden stage.
He was a burly, black, moustachioed middle-aged man deeply engrossed in the music that was spinning off his fingers.
It was Ray Bryant, one of the great swing-to-bop eclectics of the jazz piano who was just as at ease accompanying the pioneer of the tenor saxophone Coleman Hawkins or the Basie-ite drummer Jo Jones as he was playing with prime boppers and post-boppers like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean.
So to both hear of his death in 2011 and see a reissue of a single CD of two of his finest early trio albums filled me with memories and sadness at the loss of such a huge talent.
Born in Philadelphia in 1931, Bryant was born also into music. His mother was an accomplished pianist and tutored him from an early age, and he was surrounded by the sounds of the gospel church. So much so that by his early twenties he was house pianist at Philly's Blue Note, accompanying luminous hornmen like Parker, Lester Young and Davis, and by 1955 he was making his studio debut on the latter's Quintet/Sextet album with jazz eminences like McLean and Milt Jackson.
The trio album Little Susie was Bryant's first album for the giant Columbia label, recorded in December and January 1959-60. Named after his young daughter, the title tune was a bestseller as a single and the album's repertoire was made up of Bryant originals and familiar standards. Ray's brother Tommy was on bass. Gus Johnson played drums on four titles and Eddie Locke on the other four.
The trio rip into Little Susie as if they are three musicians in one, with Johnson's rattling snores providing powerful rhythmic impetus and Bryant striking hard and clear, leaping up and down his keys, with Tommy's walking bass hurrying to catch up with his striding brother. By Myself is more reflective, slower but still jaunty and radiating Bryant's rolling energy.
The subject of Blues for Norine must have been a formidable woman, for there is everything strong and potent about her characterisation in this piece, played with an uncompromising forward groove that contrasts with the confident way Bryant sits back on his notes all through his rendition of Erroll Garner's Misty.
Bryant is back to his own creations in Big Buddy, a sprinting performance which gives Tommy a short solo before Ray comes leaping back to show his full virtuosity at breakneck speed. He follows this by two American songbook classics, first Willow Weep for Me played with a strong dose of the blues and Cole Porter's So in Love, made into a keyboard stomp, full of joy and surprise.
In December 1960 Bryant recorded Con Alma, his second Columbia album, this time with Bill Lee and Arthur Harper alternating on bass, and drummer Mickey Roker. The title tune was a Dizzy Gillespie original taken from his Afro-Cuban mode and the album also includes Bryant's own Cubano Chant, in the full wake of the Cuban revolution the year before.
Bryant gives Con Alma's cadences a quasi-marching rhythm beside Roker's rhythmic rimshots whereas his version of Ellington's C Jam Blues which follows is pumped out of his keys with a swinging verve. His own composition Nuts and Bolts, full of sudden corners, also shows Roker's impressive percussive skills and the call to action of Cubano Chant makes you think of Fidel and Che and all the other heroes moving through the Sierra Maestra.
The album ends with works from three other great contemporaries. Monk's Round Midnight is revealed in all its beautiful complexity, Miles's Milestones hurtles along beside Roker's brushes and powered by Bryant's startling note clarity, and as the album plays out with John Lewis's evocative and loving tribute to the great Gypsy guitarist Django.
I still can't get the picture of Ray Bryant's brilliance on the grass in front of Ally Pally out of my mind.
If you appreciated this article then please consider donating to the Morning Star's Fighting Fund to ensure we can keep developing your paper.