Jerry Bryant celebration concert with the Island Big Band
Where: Hermann’s Jazz Club
When: Monday, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $10. 250-388-9166
Jerry Bryant, who turns 90 on Monday, has fond memories of his famous uncle.
That would be Big Joe Turner, the Kansas City blues shouter credited as one of the architects of rock ’n’ roll. Turner’s hits included Shake, Rattle and Roll and Flip, Flop and Fly.
“I got every kind of patch on my pants, except a greenback dollar bill,” recited Bryant, recalling lyrics Uncle Joe liked to sing. “But I love Lucille and I guess I always will!”
Bryant — a singer and jazz pianist — is a popular figure in Victoria. Renowned as a musician and an educator, he’s one of those guys everyone seems to know: His friends include record producer David Foster and flutist Paul Horn.
On Monday, Bryant teams up with pals in the Island Big Band for a concert to celebrate his 90th birthday. The ensemble will play tunes by Duke Ellington, Count Basie and other big-band heroes. Meanwhile, kudos continue to accumulate on a website dedicated to Bryant’s birthday bash (jerrybryant90.simdif.com).
Foster wrote: “I just wanted to pass on my heartfelt congrats to Jerry reaching this milestone in his incredibly active and productive life.”
“In my own case, I am certain that you made it possible for me to consider a life in music,” wrote Christopher Donison. A composer, conductor and pianist, Donison is a former student who went on to become music director for the Shaw Festival and now oversees Bamfield’s Music by the Sea festival.
Born in Kansas City, Bryant taught for years at Esquimalt High School (his disciples included trombonist Hugh Fraser as well as Donison) and other schools before retiring in 1979. After retirement, he resumed life as a working musician, playing regularly at the Deep Cove Chalet, where he’d occasionally bump into celebrities such as Barbra Streisand and Kevin Costner.
Interviewed at his Sidney apartment, Bryant — barefoot and wearing a sweatshirt — reminisced about a lifetime as a musician and teacher. As he chatted, his black cat, Endaba, prowled about. Bryant says the pet, a rescued stray, was given to him by its former keepers: Paul Horn and Ann Mortifee. He insists the cat brings him luck; his health has improved since Endaba moved in.
About five years ago, friends encouraged Bryant to join the Island Big Band. His wife, Cecilia, had passed on. Her death had shaken him — they’d been married more than 50 years. Weekly Island Big Band rehearsals gave Bryant something to look forward to.
“Every Monday, I’m expected to show my butt up and be a member of that team,” he said with a smile. “It’s been a blossoming experience.”
As a young man, Bryant might easily have followed in the steps of Big Joe Turner, becoming a nightclub musician. He says his uncle, who started out singing on street corners, “survived by his wits.” By age 15, Turner had graduated to Kansas City clubs.
“He was a singing bartender,” Bryant said. “He never went to school or anything of the sort.”
Bryant decided he didn’t want to spend his life in nightclubs. He chose another path, marrying in 1952 and getting a degree from the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music.
For eight years Bryant taught school in Denver. Then, restless and seeking adventure, he embarked on a brave new path. In 1959, Bryant, his wife and their baby moved to Westlock, Alta., a town 85 kilometres north of Edmonton, where he began a new teaching job.
Living conditions in the tiny Prairie community were at first primitive, he recalled. Their house had no beds; a neighbour had to lend some. American friends told them they’d made a terrible mistake. The capper came when Bryant’s mother-in-law arrived for a visit.
“She looked around and said, ‘Jerry, you’ve gone from sugar to s--t.’ ”
Bryant saw something else: opportunity. He believed he and his family could thrive. And he believed he could create a good school band — although the school didn’t yet have one. Bryant succeeded. His student band became so accomplished, it was invited to play Expo 67, the international exposition in Montreal.
Later that year, Bryant and his family moved to Victoria. He’d been impressed when the Victoria-based Naden Band toured to Westlock. Bryant decided the West Coast would provide musically fertile ground.
His first teaching job was at an Esquimalt junior high school. Initially it was rough going in (“Colloquially, it was called ‘The Zoo,’ ” Bryant said).
Yet once again, he made it work.
Bryant says, as a music teacher, he believed it’s important to show novices new things that can potentially open a door.
Qualicum saxophonist/pianist Phil Dwyer wasn’t a student of Bryant’s. But he never forgot the time, many years ago, his parents once invited Bryant over for dinner before his gig at the Qualicum College Inn.
He asked Dwyer to play piano for him. Bryant praised the teenager. And then he opened a door.
“He said, ‘The next time you try playing this tune, try this.’ He showed me this very slick piano thing. It was like getting a real inside pro tip,” Dwyer said.
Bryant said a key thing he’s gleaned from a lifetime in music is the importance of listening — really listening — to the sound you’re creating. At the same time, despite being poised to enter his 10th decade, he insists he’s still learning himself.
“That’s all I’m trying to do with the [Island Big] Band, man, is just to play better!”