Ray Bryant left his body last year. A great musician inspiring to seize life by its horns

Dec 24, 2012 Ray Bryant left his body last year. A great musician inspiring to seize life by its horns

I became a big jazz fan in 1976, when plenty of the key jazz greats from the 1940’s and 1950’s were still alive. Many American jazz musicians — Cecil Taylor ultimately rejected the label “jazz”, but I do not know of any substitute short description that comes as close to “jazz” — performed, and even lived, overseas in Europe, with many also performing in Japan, where they would repeatedly draw much larger crowds than in the United States. If excellence determined audience numbers, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, and Horace Silver would consistently fill the same stadiums filled by the biggest rock stars. Instead, I have delighted in seeing all of them in nightlclubs with crowds under one hundred. I have been blessed with experiencing performances by scores of the most key players in jazz history playing at their best, including this listing of people who appeared in the famous “Great Day in Harlem” photo.

In 1978, I travelled to France and studied French with a group of fifty American high school students at a boarding school in Nice, France, which has an annual summer jazz festival. I experienced many of the top names in jazz, and got within a few feet of several, including meeting Dizzy in between practice sessions and being two people away from Bill Evans before learning decades later that he was more amazing than I realized at the time.

The Nice jazz festival showcased musicians performing at their best on three stages among Roman ruins. The choice of which stage to attend was often difficult.

When I went with a friend to get some dinner early on during the festival week, a kind American man behind us in the outdoor line for the carryout food started talking with us. We found out that he was Ray Bryant — 47 at the time, and seeming even younger than that — among the musicians performing at the festival. He was unassuming in the way he spoke, so I had no idea that he had already reached so many heights beginning two decades earlier, and to my best recollection I found out that he was playing piano that night with Lionel Hampton’s all-star band, which included Cat Anderson blowing me away with his screaming trumpet.

My friend and I sat down to eat, opened the official double-LP album for the festival, saw Ray Bryant as one of the album’s featured musicians, and decided he must have some particular excellence to be featured in that collection. So we did what I learned that day never to do again, which was to ask him to autograph the album while he ate dinner. We said: “I am sorry” as we asked, and he replied surprised but kindly as he autographed our albums: “I’m sorry, too.”

I rarely seek any autographs any more — agreeing with the Zappa fan who honored his hero by not disturbing him as he ate post-performance at a Chinese restaurant — unless during a signing at a bookstore. In fact, when I was floored to see actor Lou Jacobi through the window of a shoe repair store one day near Rockefeller Center during a lunch break from work in 1986, I just smiled in childlike delight through the window, and he delighted with a smile back. I did not even enter the store, as our non-verbal communication had said it all.

Something motivated me a few days ago to see how Ray Bryant is doing. I learned that I missed his passing last year.

Ray Bryant taught me that we can make our dreams come true through passion, practice, and seizing opportunity; reminded me to do my best not to have a big ego, and to treat everyone the same, no matter their apparent stature, intellect and connections; and underlined that we can create our own magic in our lives. Ray broke into jazz in the 1950’s when it was developing at a dizzying pace. Before turning thirty, he was already making albums under his own name, and over the years also played as a side musician with Dizzy, Miles, Bird, Carmen McRae, and more.

Ray Bryant is among the people who inspire me to seize life by its horns and to transcend and deflate apparent obstacles.

Thanking and bowing deeply to Ray Bryant.

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