There were some Ray Bryant stories I wanted to get to in the earlier piece about him, but it was too long, as usual. I’m considering a reverse Tom Waits: having had a bottle in front of me for many years, I may opt for a frontal lobotomy in the hope it might shorten my writing. It’s not as if it I’m a mental giant or anything, there would be no great loss involved. Anyway, here goes.
Though he was fairly serious about music, Ray Bryant had a great sense of humour and a real belly laugh. He also had a mega-watt smile which involved his whole face, even his hair seemed to smile. Some of his humour was of the gallows, ironic variety and when he was delivering this, he had a habit of making his face go all deadpan and serious. His eyes would get wide and grave, he would sigh and could fool you into thinking he was mad. This all came into play one night during one of the earlier gigs I played with him at Bourbon St. around 1980 or so.
Ray, Jerry Fuller and I were playing a set when Ted O’Reilly and Rob McConnell, both long-time fans, came in one night. Ray played his arrangement of Neal Hefti’s “Girl Talk”, one of his best and a real favourite of mine. It was a medium-tempo shuffle in F, and his approach was along the lines of theme-and-variations. Each chorus was kind of a shout chorus built around the melody and each one was slightly different, building and becoming more layered and involved, until the whole thing was grooving like the Basie band, just raging.
After the set, the three of us joined our confreres at their table for a drink, and Rob was just raving about “Girl Talk”, saying he’d written hundreds of big band charts but that was one of the best he’d ever heard, piano trio or not. He added that he’d like to voice Ray’s arrangement out for the Boss Brass. Ray went kind of quiet, put on his deadpan face, sighed, and said with some edge, “Well OK, motherf—er, but if you’re gonna steal my shit, you gotta give me co-credit.” There was a small, tense pause, as we all thought Ray was angry, but then his shoulders started to shake and he said, “Man, you know I wouldn’t wanna miss out on all those fat royalty cheques!” and cracked up. We all roared, with a little relief mixed into the laughter, and Rob high-fived Ray, assuring him he was welcome to his half of nothin’. His humour could keep you on your toes.
Fast forward to the late ’90s, and I was playing a week with Ray and Archie Alleyne at the Montreal Bistro. On the Saturday, I was invited to my old friend Bob Allair’s house for a very special dinner, which they held early enough for me to get to the gig afterward. Bob’s wife Susan and his cousin Paul Ferrell are both gourmet cooks and this was to be an elaborate French-theme dinner party. The two of them had bought a special large pot and had spent three days making cassoulet from scratch. It’s a very hearty, delicious French peasant dish involving salt pork, duck, sausage, goose fat, beans and God knows what else, about thirty ingredients. Before getting to the food though, we all worked up an appetite by watching “Babette’s Feast” while drinking lashings of French red wine, and by the time dinner was served nobody was feeling any pain, least of all me. I ate a lot of cassoulet and bread and luckily it was rich and heavy enough that it soaked up some of the wine – I only felt half-loaded when I started the first set and by the time it was over I felt really good, pretty much sober and didn’t drink anything further, figuring I had gotten off lightly.
At some point on a break, I told Ray about the cassoulet and how great it had been. He looked me straight in the eye with his serious face and said, “M.F. – you’re telling me you had cassoulet and didn’t bring me none? Man, that is cold, no more bass solos for you tonight.” And then cracked up, adding he was glad he was down-wind from me and felt sorry for Archie, who wasn’t. I told him not to worry about Archie, that I still owed him from an infamous night when we shared a hotel room in Cork, Ireland. After our concert, we’d been taken out for lots of oysters and Guinness, and let’s just say that later we named our room “Green Haze” after the Miles tune and I had to go out for a walk and some fresh air around 4:00 in the morning, while Archie was asleep, snoring from the wrong end. Just brutal. It turns out that Ray’s last wife, Claude, was from France, and her mother often made cassoulet and somehow mailed it to Ray frozen in special containers, to various locations where he’d be working. It was one of his favourite dishes and he referred to it as “French soul food”, which is exactly what it is.
This final story is from around 1989 or so, when Mark (Merv) Eisenman, John Sumner and I were booked to play with saxophonist Big Nick Nicholas at Meyer’s Deli in Yorkville. It had all the atmosphere of a McDonald’s, but with Jewish food, sort of. Big Nick was the last guy we ever expected to play with, especially in this jazz toilet. It was all a brain-wave of booking agent Dave Caplan, who was known as the “jazz-happy tailor”, or the “tail-happy jazzer”, depending on how you looked at it.
Nicholas was a legend among musicians in and around Harlem and John Coltrane wrote a tune for him – “Big Nick.” He’d been around since the very early days of bebop, and was one of those tenor players like Ike Quebec or John Hardee who was part swing-era, part early bebop, with a healthy dose of R&B thrown in. Like a lot of such players he had a big, breathy sound like Ben Webster, and blurred, fuzzy pitch, like “Lockjaw” Davis, only raunchier. His playing was soulful and interesting. He played notes that weren’t really notes, but more like sounds, kind of “trad-avant-garde.” Think David Murray, only playing normal tunes with straight-ahead backing and you’ll get the idea. He was fairly old by this point and huge – picture a brown bear with glasses wearing a suit and tie. He was really a nice guy, but it was almost impossible to understand what he said because he talked like Mortimer Snurd, channeling Big Miller. He’d say “Mmlessplawwymmbiwrdynsorrll” and after a while we’d figure out he was saying “Um, let’s play Body and Soul.”
His repertoire was mostly standards, swing-type tunes, ballads and blues, some early bebop. He also liked to play the waltz “I’m All Smiles” which really surprised us – it just didn’t seem like his kind of tune at all. It’s a hip, modern tune and most of its melody notes are tensions against the chords – sharp-nines, flat-thirteenths, sharp-elevenths and so on. The first time we played it was a surreal disaster, just mind-bending and hilarious. The trouble was that Nick’s pitch was so funky and sharp that when he played the melody tensions, they sounded like regular vanilla notes – thirds, sixths, and fifths. Meanwhile, Merv was correctly playing chords with the tension notes in them and they sounded wrong, like he was some college-kid hipster. He’d play a chord, then jerk his hands back as if he’d gotten an electric shock; he was playing the piano as if the keys were red-hot coals – he didn’t know what the hell to do. He and I got laughing so hard about this we could hardly breathe, never mind play. I remember the snorts and the schpritz glistening on his ample forehead, as little missiles of saliva shot out his mouth onto the chart. Meanwhile, Nick was oblivious to all this, blowing up a storm on the melody, sharp as a new cadet. This only made it funnier and we were giggling before even playing the tune on later nights.
On one of the weekend nights, damn if Ray Bryant didn’t walk into the club while we were playing, with Ted O’Reilly in tow. I hadn’t seen him in quite a while, but he had married a Toronto woman and was actually living here part of the time, and Big Nick was an old friend of his. Fortunately, we’d already played “I’m All Smiles” by that point, and were steaming along on “Sunday” or something when they walked in and took a table near the bandstand. Nick turned to us and said “Lessplwrayyaslowrrrbalorrzzineffhghh ” – “Let’s play a slow blues in F.” I could feel Merv tense up and could practically see the thought-bubble over his head, “Jesus Christ, Ray Bryant’s ten feet away and we’re playing a slow blues, his meat. What am I supposed to do?” He needn’t have worried, I knew if he just played the way he always played, Ray would dig him. Sure enough, Merv delivered some comping and blues-playing that sounded like Memphis Slim and Red Garland all rolled together. Within about a minute Ray was smiling and bellowed out “Yeahhhh!” We took a break and went over to the table.
After a warm exchange with Nick and saying hello to me, Ray was introduced to Merv and John and he complimented them, grabbing Merv by the arm, pulling him into a seat and asking, “How did a young guy like you learn to play the blues like that?” Merv answered Ray that it was mostly from listening to him play things like “After Hours” on the Dizzy record “Sonny Side Up”, adding that he considered it an all-time classic. Ray just beamed at this, saying in mock-seriousness, “You hear that fellas? I’m on an all-time classic, that’s fo’ sure! Let’s drink to that!” What followed was one of the great impromptu, multi-generational, between-sets-hang-outs ever – drinks, laughs, stories, memories, with the warmth of Nick and Ray’s reunion at the centre of it all. I felt really happy for my good buddy Merv getting some much-deserved props from a master. There sure were a lot of good feelings at that table.
Apart from some of the satisfying musical moments, these are the times musicians cherish and live for, they’re what you remember and they make up for a lot of the struggle involved in the jazz life. I once read a profile of Charles Mingus somewhere in which he said something like, “The sound of jazz is the sound of men laughing.” Even though it’s from Mingus, who didn’t always exactly promote laughter on the bandstand, I’ve always liked that, it’s stayed with me. I wouldn’t trade these kinds of laughs, good times or stories for all the money I might have earned in another field, and neither would any other musician I know.
© 2012 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.