THE COOL MISS “B” STILL GOING STRONG AT 88

THE COOL MISS “B” STILL GOING STRONG AT 88 – A Black History Month Documentation

By Jazz journalist/ Dee Dee McNeil

FEBRUARY 5, 2018

Betty Bryant, whose friends affectionately call her, ‘the Cool Miss B’, answers the phone with the same joi de vivre and blossoming smile that always makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. Betty personifies her joy for life in both personality and music. I was excited to interview this music master. As we talked, I realized that Betty’s life seemed to be a series of opportunities she wasn’t really expecting. Almost like her fate was preordained and had nothing-at-all to do with her plans. She hadn’t dreamed of stardom or made a wish board. She hadn’t pictured herself travelling the world or entertaining crowds with her voice and piano playing. It just sort of happened. But wait. I’ll let her explain.

Betty Bryant: “I’ll start when we lived on 25th street in Kansas City, Missouri and I was in the third or fourth grade at that time. I was studying classical music. I had a beautiful baby grand piano that my grandmother had given to me. And I was very lucky in that respect, but I didn’t know it. My grandfather gave my grandmother the piano on their first wedding anniversary, which is also my mother’s birthday. It just sort of got handed down to me. Maybe a prestige gift, since I was the first one in the family to show any talent in music. I had to practice before I went to school and when I came home from school. Yuk.”

We laughed together, because I was around that age when I was taking piano lessons and being compelled to practice. I didn’t always want to be bothered with practicing, so I could relate to how Betty felt.

Betty: “My best friend, Donna Baker, she had nine kids in her family and her father played the piano. I had more fun at her house than I did at mine. Her brother was Ed Baker who played trumpet and wound up with a band in Kansas City, MO. She had an older sister, Betty Baker, who sang with Eddie’s band for a while. The whole family played music and none of them had any training. I can remember Donna and me sitting at the piano and teaching ourselves how to play entrances and endings to songs. And we played Boogie Woogie. Everybody played Boogie Woogie back then.”

Betty hums me a Boogie Woogie line over the phone, and I immediately recognize it. Boogie Woogie is the first thing my dad taught me how to play on the piano. Betty and I both came up before television was a household entertainment center. In our day, you made music, you listened to radio, or you played 78rpm records and albums.

Betty: “I recall the first time we got a console and it had a record player in it (a turn-table) that dropped the records; 78rpm records. Our console came with a sample record. I can’t remember the name of that song, but my father used to play it all the time. It was a group singing. This was in the early 40’s. I was born in 1929. I was hung up on Bull Moose Jackson’s recording of ‘I Just Can’t Go On Without You’ during that period in my life.”

Although she was drawn to music in her youth, Betty never considered it would become a career path. After all, her father, who was an educator, held high hopes she would follow in his esteemed footsteps. The whole town knew her father, Dr.Girard Bryant, and they expected big things from Betty.

“Actually, my father was a school teacher. In fact, I come from a whole long line of school teachers. My maternal grandfather actually wrote speeches for Booker T. Washington. My dad was just sort of insistent that I attend college. I went to Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas and majored in ‘Fine Arts,’ because they told me to do that. So, I got a teaching certificate to please them. I was not really interested in school and I had quit playing the piano. At sixteen, I played my last recital.

“One day, while I was still living in Topeka, I heard this radio show out of Oklahoma; maybe Tulsa. A DJ was interspersing live music with records. Well, I had a friend in Topeka who worked at a radio station and I was telling him about it. He said, oh – that’s interesting. Well, he told his station manager about it and then I got a call asking me if I could come down. Just like that, I was thrown back into music. At that point I knew how to play some blues. I knew ‘Body and Soul’ up to the bridge. (she chuckled)

“I still don’t know the bridge,” Betty confided to me conspiratorially.

“There was a baseball game that came on. The radio station put me on after the baseball game. I never knew how long I was going to be playing. I might have a half an hour show. I might have a fifteen-minute show. It was really a strange re-introduction to the world of ‘live’ music. It’s funny. There was a woman on at that time called, Lonesome Gal and she came on late at night. She had a real low, deep, sexy voice. So, the Station Manager thought I had a naturally sexy voice. All of this was when I was like twenty-one or something. It didn’t make any sense at all to me. But that was my launch back into music. I played records, DJ’d and played piano. I don’t know if their ratings went up, but it was sort of a joke with everybody. Nobody could believe I was doing that. Fresh out of college, with a radio gig.

“I was also working at Menningers at that time. It was the biggest psychiatric hospital in the country. People came from all over the world to train there. I was a secretary.”

Menninger Psychiatric hospital was founded in 1919 by Dr. Charles Menninger and his sons, Karl and William, both doctors as well. The facility consisted of a clinic, a sanatorium and a school of psychiatry. They worked in harmony with the Winter Veteran’s hospital and administration, an army facility also located in Topeka. In 2003, Menninger moved from Topeka, Kansas to Houston, TX, with a stellar reputation of being on the forefront of psychiatric break-through treatment.

BETTY: “At that time, Topeka was the hub of psychiatric treatment. Then there was the Winter General, that was like the army hospital. It was right after World War II, so you had veterans coming in from all over the world to Menninger. That hospital knew more about psychiatry than anybody. The whole city was kind of formed around those hospitals. This is back when they were doing electric-shock treatments and that kind of stuff.”

It didn’t take the young Betty Bryant long to figure out her day-job wasn’t what she wanted to do the rest of her life. With a college degree under her belt, playing piano on the radio broadcast peaked her interest in her instrument again and her love of music was reignited. To self-support, she worked as a secretary for a couple of years, until the gigs started steadily rolling in. One of the first gigs she accepted was with Buddy Brown’s band. He was looking for a singer and Betty snatched the opportunity to expand her repertoire and experience.

Betty: “For a little while, I was a stand-up singer with the Buddy Brown Band. He played trumpet. I don’t remember much more than that. I would say he had maybe an eight-piece band. They had a big-band sound. It was before trios and quartets were popular. It was pre-Nat King Cole. I was singing blues in one form or another; Fast blues, slow blues, happy blues, sad blues. One, four, five forever,” she referred to the chord structure of the blues.

“No standards. It was mainly just keeping that beat so people would keep dancing. Somebody called me yesterday and they were amazed that I actually knew Jay McShann and that we were good friends. He was a very down to earth person. He took me under his wing. When I was twelve, I bought his book and I was trying to stretch my little fingers to walk tenths with my left hand. I learned to do that when I was twelve. It was because of studying that Jay McShann book. I learned how to play “Vine Street Boogie” and “Confessin’ the Blues”.

“But I didn’t actually meet Jay McShann until much later. It was after I came back to Kansas City from Topeka. He was working a gig, and somehow or another, I started going by his gig. He’d get off the stand and let me play piano with his band. It was so much fun and I was so honored to be able to do this. Of course, everything was still segregated at that time. We would play, and then on our breaks the band had to go down in the basement of the place. We couldn’t sit out in the audience with the people. Somebody in the band would run across the street to the liquor store and get a bottle. We’d sit down there for the break and pass the bottle around. They never bought a big bottle to last through the night. They’d go out and get a bottle to last through the break; like a pint. It was a funny time. Then I started working at a place, doing a Single.”

NOTE: A Single is musician talk for one person who plays solo piano and who might also sing.

“The place I worked was near where Jay McShann happened to be playing. I got off earlier than he did and when I got off, I’d go by his gig and hang out with him and his guys. There was Richard White, who became Ahmad Alladeen. He played baritone saxophone. There was a guy named “Jeep” Griddine who played guitar like the Count Basie rhythm guitarist. Jeep couldn’t dance, his feet did not work, but boy could he play that rhythm guitar. “Piggy” played trumpet. His real name was Orville Minor. “Fats” played tenor and Al Duncan played drums. I can’t believe I remembered all those names,” her laugh tinkles across the telephone line like the upper register of the piano.

(NOTE: An historic photo of Betty Bryant with her mentor and friend, Jay McShann, currently hangs in the lobby of her Kansas City ‘American Jazz Museum’.)

I told Betty that I had heard a few people say her piano style reminded them a little of Count Basie. I asked her if she had ever met the Count?

“Really? No, I never met Count Basie. I do have a documentary of Jay McShann, with Count Basie. It’s called “The Last of the Blue Devils”. It’s a great documentary. I have it on a VHF video. Jay sent it to me. You know those little address stickers you get when you donate to something? It’s got one of those little stickers on it that says Jay McShann and his address. It’s not an autograph, but that’s the kind of person that he was. He did that himself. It wasn’t like he had someone handling that for him.”

This VHF treasure that Betty owns and that is titled, “The Last of the Blue Devils” features a host of jazz icons including Lester Young, Max Roach, Big Joe Turner, Charlie Parker, Charles McPherson, Dizzy Gillespie, Jo Jones and Eddie Durham. According to publicity notes about this documentary, written by J. Hailey, during the Kansas City Prohibition days, jazz music was the rage. In the late 1970’s, a bunch of musicians gathered at the Union Hall to discuss that so-called, Pendergast era. The participants included some of the Walter Page Blue Devils, several being musicians who joined Bennie Moten’s band and others who joined and stayed with Count Basie’s band. Highlights of the filmed documentary offer remembrances of Lester Young, stories and discussion about how Charlie Parker got his nickname. There are highlights of Joe Turner’s vocals and McShann’s extraordinary piano playing. A drum clinic is included that’s hosted by Jo Jones. Betty Bryant has one historic piece of film memorabilia in her collection!

In 1955, Betty transplanted to Los Angeles. She had grown as a musician and an artist under the rich tutelage of Jay McShann. Ms. Bryant was quick to tell me Jay McShann had greatly influenced her style of playing. She was also enamored with Nat King Cole’s musicianship. However, the little lady with the bluesy piano and convincing vocals felt it was time for her to leave Kansas City. She was more self-assured and prepared than she had ever been. It was time to spread her wings and fly.

“What happened was, Earl Grant, the piano player/organist, left Kansas City before I did. And I got his job in Kansas City. I basically got the job because everybody knew I was Girard Bryant’s daughter. And that was one of the reason I had to get out of Kansas City, because I never was me. I was always ‘his daughter’. It drove me nuts. After I left, years and years later, when I was playing in Brazil in 1972, something was printed in Kansas City that Dr. Girard Bryant’s daughter is playing in Brazil. I had to get away from there to be myself. So, when Earl left Kansas City, the person who had hired him hired me to take his place in her club. And she was right. At that time, I had no repertoire. By that time, I had added “Laura,” and a few things besides the blues. But I still didn’t have much of a repertoire. I was playing at a club called, Millie’s. I knew Earl from way back. Earl and my sister share a birthday date and they used to share birthday parties when they were really young. So, he came out here and became a fixture. He was playing at Club Pigalle (a popular club located at 4135 South Figuroa that hosted several local acts) and also at this swanky little club in Beverly Hills. When I arrived in town, I got in touch with Earl. He got me a gig in that Beverly Hills club on his night off. It just fell into place.”

Shortly after she arrived in the City of Angels, Betty Bryant enjoyed an intimate observation of the great Billie Holiday performing in a small Hollywood nightspot. Betty told me about that.

“I didn’t see Billie Holiday perform until I moved out here. There was a little place on Wilshire and La Brea. Everything has changed architecturally now, but it was a club that faced Wilshire. If you went across the street and up a block there was another club that faced La Brea and Dizzy Gillespie used to play there. Between those two places, they booked all these big names. There was a lot going on in the fifties. But anyway, I remember I went to see Billie Holiday and Johnny Ray, who had that hit record, ‘The Little White Cloud that Cried.’ I didn’t get to meet Billie Holiday and I didn’t get to speak to her. She was just sort of out-of-it that night. But I had to be there. I went by myself. That was the only time I ever saw her and I’m glad it was in a small club setting. You could feel the whole presence of her. Small clubs are so much better than being in the big venues they have today. They’re so intimate, especially for jazz.

“in those days, Union agents patrolled the clubs. So, you pretty much had to be in the Union and they made sure you paid your dues and your membership was up to date. The agents all had offices in the union and they made sure you didn’t have more than the number of hired musicians on the bandstand. So, if you hired six people, you couldn’t have more than six on the bandstand. That cut out people who just wanted to come jam or sit-in. They would fine you back then.

“When I arrived in Los Angeles, the Union had a thing where you cannot transfer from one Musician’s Union to another. I had to join the one out here and then there’s a three-month waiting period. Because they said you might be taking jobs away from people that already lived here. I could work Casuals, but not a regular job.”

NOTE: A ‘Casual’ in the music business is a one-time, private party or private event.

“So, at first the Union told me, No. It’s not a Casual, because you’re doing it every Monday night. I fought them about it. They finally relented and let me do it. It was obvious I wasn’t taking work away from anyone, because no one had been working on Monday nights.

“You know, when I came out here, it was at the exact same time when civil right were being fought for all over the country. Like in Kansas City, I got the first job downtown for a black musician. You could play the black clubs, but the clubs that were sort of out (in the suburbs), we rarely patronized those clubs. But you could work in them. All of that was happening, just about at that same time I moved here. In a way, I don’t really know how to say this without it coming out wrong, but, when everything became desegregated, it wiped out all the black clubs. Everybody wanted to go to the integrated clubs, whether it was the same music or not.”

Betty has worked several clubs around the Los Angeles area, always expanding her repertoire and popularity. I used to love to hear both Betty and Howlett Smith perform duos with Larry Gales or Tomas Gargano at the now defunct, Bob Burns Restaurant, in Santa Monica. Ms. Bryant is a mainstay of Kansas City jazz, be it as a Single performer, a duo or with a trio or quartet. Her style is distinctive and her beaming personality is infectious.

One unexpected day, Betty Bryant got a call from a friend, Polo Lenna, who asked her if she’d like to perform in Oman. Oman shares borders with Saudi Arabia, Yeman and the United Arab Emirates. Betty figured, why not? She accepted the gig, packed her gowns, sparkle shoes and her music, then off she went for a four-month stint in the Middle East, where she was warmly received.

In 1972, she was walking down the hallway of the Union building when someone called her into their office and introduced her to the drummer who was touring with Sergio Mendes. It seems they were looking for someone just like her to work in Brazil. Auditions were being held at the Sergio Mendes home. More out of curiosity, than for any other reason, Betty went to the audition. The Mendes house did not disappoint her, even though she never saw the main house. Auditions were held in the Mendes pool house that had been converted into a studio. Betty said the sprawling home was still impressive. Surprisingly, they immediately offered her the gig. But at that time, the busy pianist had a seven-year-old son and the responsibility of motherhood. They told her she could bring him with her. Once again, Betty packed her gowns, her music and this time, her young son. They spent the next six months in Rio de Janeio, Brazil.

The globe-trotting Ms. Betty Bryant also spent several years performing at the Tableaux Lounge in Tokyo, Japan. She was one of the featured performers in the Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival in Boquete, Panama. Her annual Birthday Bash at the famous Hollywood jazz room, Catalina’s, is always packed with iconic names and faithful followers. In 1987, Betty Bryant Day was declared in Kansas City and she was gifted with the keys to her city. Imagine her surprise and pleasure when she learned, years later and after the Jazz Museum was established in Kansas City, that a historic photograph of herself with Jay McShann hangs in the lobby. In 2011, Linda Morgan’s Jazzabration and Living Legend Society honored Betty Bryant for her many lifetime musical achievements at the Barbara Morrison Performing Art Center in Los Angeles. Additionally, she has received several State and City proclamations and Awards that celebrate her undeniable talents and community involvement. She continues to lend her name and performances each year to the Dolo Coker Foundation event that raises money to support youthful jazz musicians in their educational pursuits.

This year, Betty Bryant is 88-years-young and still going strong. She has decided that what better time to record an album in celebration of her eighty-eight years on the planet and the eighty-eight keys she plays on piano. Her co-producer will be her friend and first choice of saxophone players, Robert Kyle. They will be going into the studio soon to create her 9th album. Betty is a consummate composer and we can expect to hear some of her original material on this new production.

Meantime, she is still busy performing around town. You can catch Betty Bryant on February 8, 2018 at the Vibrato Grill; 2930 Beverly Glen Circle; Los Angeles, CA 90077 on a Thursday night at 8PM. There is a $20 cover charge and you are invited to make a table reservation and enjoy a meal at this very swanky supper club owned by jazz trumpeter and legend, Herb Alpert.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: