Jerry Bryant, a blues musician who had a knack for opening doors into the world of music for generations of local students, has died at age 98.
The singer and jazz pianist, who was born in Kansas City on April Fool’s Day in 1923, died Aug. 19.
Music ran in his family. His uncle was Big Joe Turner, a blues shouter from Kansas City, Missouri that was credited as one of the pioneers of rock ’n’ roll. Inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, his hits included Shake, Rattle and Roll and Flip, Flop and Fly.
Bryant had the voice and the acumen to follow in his uncle’s footsteps as a nightclub musician. Instead, he chose higher education, receiving a degree from the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music.
He became an educator, initially teaching in Denver. In 1959, Bryant moved his young family to Westlock, Alta., a town 85 kilometres north of Edmonton. He created a school band that became so accomplished that they got invited to play at Expo 67.
Later that year, Bryant and his family moved to Victoria after hearing the Victoria-based Naden Band. Bryant taught for 12 years at Esquimalt High School and other schools before retiring in 1979.
“He held the room with every breath he took. He spoke as a Black man, with all the euphemisms from the South,” said Bryn Badel, who knew him for more than 20 years. “The kids worshipped him. They thought he was a pretty cool dude.”
On weekends, evenings and during summer holidays Bryant could be found performing at various gigs around town with his trio.
“Jerry was the man during those years. Everywhere you looked, you would see his name on the roster,” said Badel.
After his retirement as an educator, he assumed the life of a working musician, playing regularly. His last big gig was playing with the Island Big Band three weeks before his 96th birthday. His last concert was the day the province was shut down by COVID-19, 0n March of last year.
Victoria-born musician and producer David Foster called Bryant a “giant musical force.”
“Although I was never his student, he always took the time to show me musical things that I was hungry for,” said Foster. “He was gracious, classy, generous and above all, a huge talent. I used to go watch him perform and just be … well … in awe.”
Bryant was married to his wife, Cecilia, for 52 years. Shortly after her death in 2004, friends encouraged him to join the Island Big Band, in hopes that he would find the weekly rehearsals something to look forward to. He played with the band for the last 15 years.
“I sat next to Jerry for close to 15 years and absorbed every bit of music and soul that I could,” said Badel. “I learned much from listening to his style and spoke to him at length every week about the music, philosophy of life, and most importantly soul, and Jerry’s soul was deep.”
As a music teacher, Bryant believed it was important to show novices new things that could potentially open a door.
“Without Jerry, I never would have had a life in music,” said Christopher Donison, composer, conductor, pianist and founder of Bamfield’s Music by the Sea festival. “We never realized until years later what a bunch of lucky little buggers we were to have him as a music teacher.”
Students from other schools would travel to Esquimalt every week just to take the jazz band classes that Bryant taught.
Even after his school years, Bryant didn’t stop influencing generations of young musicians. He mentored successive generations of aspiring performers in the Island Blues Band well into his 90s.
“It was very rare to see such a gifted musician spend so many years in Victoria — we were so lucky to have him for so many years. He will be missed and he will be remembered,” said Foster.
Aside from his wife, Bryant was predeceased by his daughter Anne in 1980. He leaves a son, Peter, who was born in 1961 and lives in Vancouver.