Friday, July 2, 2010
Ray Bryant: Griot at the Piano
My father, John Strauss, won a grammy award for best classical album of 1984. That album was the sound track to the film Amadeus, which he was credited as producer. He had supervised the music of the film and ran the dubbing session for the LP for film producer Saul Zaentz who never exactly paid him for the extra days work. What he did offer him was any album in the Prestige Records library, which he had purchased several years before for $1 each.
My father brought me the catalogue and I went nuts checking off what I wanted. So much Coletrane, Miles, Monk, and on and on. My father made a few selections of his own, including a little known jazz/blues pianist named Ray Bryant. Someone had recommended him. Somehow, the company ended up sending two copies of that one and I ended up with one.
I never listened to it until years later when I was teaching James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” to an 11th grade English class. It frustrated me that my students couldn’t hear the music in the story, especially the last scene when Sonny is at the piano and his brother is finally listening. Having been into jazz for what was then half my life, it all seemed so obvious to me. I played my students some Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Monk, Miles, Bird, Coltrane to give them the feel of jazz—but none of that music quite illustrate what the fictional Sonny is playing in the climactic moments of the story. Hours at my CD changer and record player and I finally cracked the seal on my copy of Ran Bryant, Alone with the Blues. And that was it. His solo piano, the transcendent sound of the blues as a statement about the vast life spectrum of joy and pain, was like a painter’s stroke rendering a room full of suddenly introspective young faces.
I read that last scene of “Sonny’s Blues” for them with Ray Bryant playing in the background, pausing to let Ray say what needed to be said, what needed to be emphasized, letting his cadence work with Baldwin’s narrative poetry—and when it was over my students and I understood that something really special had happened. All at once we all seemed to realize the point of the story—that Sonny was telling the family history at that piano.
I don’t believe Ray Bryant was thinking about “Sonny’s Blues” when he laid down those tracks.
I don’t think he had to.