Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lesser-Known Bandleaders in Brief: Willie Bryant

Once known as "the Unofficial Mayor of Harlem," in the mid-1930s Willie Bryant led a fantastic band whose recorded output was unfortunately too small—a mere 26 sides for Victor, Brunswick, and Decca (you can find a complete discography of the band's 1930s recordings here). Critic George T. Simon does not tell us much about Bryant in his book The Big Bands, simply characterizing him as "a sleek, suave gent who . . . led a swinging band at the Savoy, featuring some great young musicians" (504). The lineup of his orchestra included, at one time or another, Teddy Wilson, Ben Webster, Eddie Durham, Benny Carter, Taft Jordan, and Cozy Cole, to name but a few, and the recordings they made together still sound swinging and exciting about eighty years later. However, Bryant was not much of a musician himself, having attempted unsuccessfully to learn to play the trumpet, but his knack for business and for surrounding himself with talented sidemen should not be overlooked. True, he may have just been waving the baton in front of the band and singing occasionally, but he definitely had an ear for recognizing talent, and if the records he made with his orchestra are still worth listening to today, it is because of the very inspired contributions of his soloists.

Cozy Cole played drums in Bryant's band in the mid '30s
Born in New Orleans in August 1908, Bryant kicked off his career as a dancer in the vaudeville circuits with an act called the Whitman Sisters and at some point even performed with Bessie Smith. His days as a bandleader began in earnest in 1934, when he put together his first orchestra, entering the studio for the first time one year later. The band made the bulk of their recorded work for Victor and Bluebird, and in 1938 also cut some sides for Decca which are rather hard to find. Drummer Panama Francis, who played in the Bryant outfit for about nine months in the '30s, observes in his autobiography that, albeit charismatic, Bryant did not become a bandleader strictly for musical reasons:

Willie Bryant was all right, a lot of fun, but he was no band leader. He didn't even know who was the conductor, they put him out front 'cause he looked like a white man. Basically they took a light skinned character and put a band around him. Bill Dogget was the straw boy for Willie. (50)

Bryant with singer Gladys Bentley
Whatever the case, Bryant must have been aware of his limitations, because even though he sings on many of the band's records, in a style heavily influenced by Fats Waller though never a match for Waller's inimitable charisma, he always made sure to leave plenty of room for his musicians to solo. When his orchestra disbanded, Bryant became a popular disc jockey and even hosted a television show for a while in the late 1940s. In 1945 he tried his hand at rhythm and blues, cutting only two songs for the Apollo label, "Blues Around the Clock" and "Amateur Night in Harlem," which are available on the Delmark CD Blues Around the Clock. The latter track finds him mimicking what he did best throughout the 1950s: emceeing shows at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where he remained popular until his death from a heart attack in February 1964 in Los Angeles. The February 27, 1964 issue of Jet magazine reports that "his body was discovered by veteran entertainer Leonard Reed, who called at Bryant's apartment when the latter failed to keep an appointment. Although no one answered the door, Reed became suspicious that Bryant was inside because his car was parked outside and summoned the apartment manager to gain entrance. Bryant's age was placed at 56 by a long-time associate, Max Acosta" (61).

About eight decades after they were made, Willie Bryant's records are not easy to come by and are available on CD only on European imports that usually command rather hefty prices. Willie Bryant and His Orchestra 1935-36 (Classics, 1994) and Jazz Archives # 53: Willie Bryant & His Orchestra (Auvidis, 1992) feature exactly the same twenty-two tracks—the five dates for Victor and Bluebird that the band cut in New York City in the mid 1930s, but the Decca session from 1938 is unfortunately not included. These are wonderful recordings full of zest and Bryant's contagious sense of excitement, which is evident on cuts such as "Throwin' Stones at the Sun," "A Viper's Moan," "Rigamarole," "Steak and Potatoes," and "Long Gone (from Bowling Green)," among others. The band's theme song, the haunting ballad "It's Over Because We're Through" (co-written by Bryant himself), is also here, and most of the tracks are interesting and highly listenable because of their engaging solos. That is the case of the growling trombone on Ted Snyder's "The Sheik" and of "The Right Somebody to Love," the latter featuring a flute played by Charles Frazier. Trumpeter Taft Jordan delivers a fine vocal on "All My Life," a danceable ballad that shows that these great musicians were very adept at performing more mainstream pop material as well. The consistently high quality of all these recordings definitely calls for a domestic reissue—perhaps including the 1938 Decca session, too—that would make these great sides more readily available, thus enabling listeners to rediscover them.

Willie Bryant and his orchestra in the 1930s

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