After locating Ronnell Bright several weeks ago, one of my supreme joys has been our frequent phone calls. The famed jazz pianist, singer, songwriter and accompanist has a speaking voice that's as caramel-rich and upbeat as his playing. Ronnell clearly is a kind, loving guy who takes great interest in others, a trait that served him well as a favorite of Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson and dozens of other jazz singers.
Best of all, our recent phone calls usually end with Ronnell putting the phone down and playing piano for me. His technique has never been better, and his chord changes take your breath away. The fact that he isn't being recorded today seems like a terrible shame to me.
Yesterday, in Part 1 of our conversation, Ronnell reflected on his classical piano training, his gigs in the navy with the Adderley brothers [pictured] and Eric Dolphy, and his early work with the Johnnie Pate Trio at Chicago's Streamliner club.
Today, in Part 2, Ronnell talks about his early-1950s gigs with Carmen McRae in Chicago, his move to New York, his first recording for Ozzie Cadena and Savoy Records on a Frank Wess date, and the deal he struck with producer John Hammond to get his newly formed trio recorded.
JazzWax: What happened after your first recording in 1955 as pianist with the Johnnie Pate Trio?
Ronnell Bright: We became the house trio at several Chicago clubs. We worked The Streamliner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and on Monday and Tuesday nights we worked the London House [pictured, today, as a bakery]. We had the hot spots. Johnnie was an excellent musician and gave me a great sense of jazz. He taught me how to accompany and how to play.
JW: How did you wind up accompanying Carmen McRae so early?
RB: By early 1955, The Streamliner club had become so popular that the owner started hiring out-of-town singers. One of them was Carmen McRae. By then, I was able to do some polished things on the piano to back up a singer. I had the technique, thanks to my classical training. When Carmen came in, she was singing all the pretty stuff. She was very sweet then, like a debutante. At the end of her run, she gave me a picture with an inscription that read, "To Ronnell, Thanks for playing for me. You’re a marvelous pianist.” The next time she came through Chicago, we played the Blue Note [pictured], an even bigger club. The Blue Note was like Birdland. Everyone worked there, from Oscar Peterson to George Shearing.
JW: Yet you decided to leave Chicago in 1956 for New York?
RB: New York was where all the major music was happening. I had to make the move if I wanted to break out on my own. When I first arrived in New York, I contacted bassist Richard Davis [pictured]. He and his wife had just gotten an apartment. I asked Richard if he had a spare room, until I was able to find a place. Richard and his wife put me up for two weeks. This was July 1956.
JW: Where did you find work?
RB: Right after I moved in, I was walking near Birdland on Broadway and 52nd St. and bumped into Benny Powell. If you were looking for work back then, you hung out there hoping to get picked up for a gig. I had met Benny originally in Chicago, when Count Basie’s band played the Blue Note. In fact I met everyone while working there—Stan Kenton, Zoot Sims, Oscar Peterson, Conte Candoli and so many others.
JW: What happened when you ran into Benny?
RB: It was about 11 am when I met him. He said, “Man, Hank Jones was supposed to do a date with us for Savoy and he can’t make it. I thought I’d find someone down here. It's supposed to be at 2 pm. Do you want to make this date?" I said, "Sure!" Benny got on the phone and hooked it up for me. When we got to the date at Rudy Van Gelder's house in New Jersey, I met producer Ozzie Cadena. Eddie Jones was on bass and Kenny Clarke was on drums. Frank Wess [pictured] was walking around with pencil and paper putting together the arrangements for four trombones—Benny, Jimmy Cleveland, Henry Coker and Bill Hughes. Freddie Green was also there on guitar. Frank played flute. [The Savoy album was Trombones: Featuring Frank Wess, Flute.]
JW: That was a big break for you.
RB: I met some fast company that day. After the session, Ozzie [pictured] came over and said, “You’re brand new huh? I’d like to record you. Can you get it together in two weeks?” I said, “Well sure, of course. What kind of instrumentation do you want?” Ozzie said, "Whatever you want. Just get it together." So I put together a trio.
JW: Who did you get?
RB: I cold-called Kenny Burrell and Leonard Gaskin. I didn’t know them but I knew they were among the busiest session musicians in town. So I got with Kenny [pictured]. We had lunch, and I told him what I was going to do. He said he'd do it. Then I called Leonard, who also agreed to play the date. The result was Bright’s Spot, which we recorded for Savoy in the fall of 1956.
JW: What did you learn from the date?
RB: The session made me realize I needed to form my own trio for gigs and recordings. Kenny and Leonard were studio guys and did this as a one-time favor. I needed my own thing. So I went by The Embers and ran into Bill Clark, who was playing drums with George Shearing. George was going out on the road, and Bill said he didn't want to travel. So I asked Bill if he wanted to form a trio. He said yes. I also had heard that Joe Benjamin [pictured], Sarah Vaughan’s bassist, was leaving her. I asked Joe about joining, and he agreed, too.
JW: So now you had your own trio.
RB: We rehearsed for a time. Then I contacted John Hammond [pictured] and told him I had a trio. I asked if he wanted to come hear us rehearse at Nola’s Studios. When John came by, he was with Rolf Kuhn, a German clarinetist. Rolf was like Benny Goodman, as fast as greased lightning. While we were playing for John, I could see Rolf was checking me out. When we finished, John said he was going to record Kuhn and needed a trio behind him. But I told John I really wanted to record with my trio. John said if I recorded behind Kuhn for him, he would do something for me later. So I talked it over with the guys.
JW: What did they say?
RB: The guys weren't crazy about it. Like me, they wanted their own thing. So I didn’t give John an answer right away. We soon got a gig at The Embers and I told John we were there. He came by and brought Kuhn again. After our set, John said he really wanted to record the four of us on his Vanguard label. So we did the Kuhn date in November 1956. It was very technical stuff, but I was able to pull it off. The album was Streamline: The Rolf Kuhn Quartet. When it was released, it was a pretty big success.
JW: What about your trio date?
RB: I still wanted my trio to record. But Rolf [pictured] and the quartet caught on for a while thanks to the album, and we went into the Blue Note in Chicago. Bassist Johnnie Pate saw me there and ribbed me: “I thought you were going to get your own thing?” he said. I said, “I know, I know.” Johnnie was just kidding. He was happy for me. But he and I both knew what I ultimately wanted to do.
JW: Did John Hammond come through on his promise?
RB: Oh, yes. When I got back to New York, he recorded me in March 1957 with Joe Benjamin on bass and Bill Clark on drums. The recording was Bright Flight. After that record, my trio was established, and we played regularly in New York. From then on, musicians and singers started to take notice of me, as did Willard Alexander, the famous band booker.
Tomorrow, Ronnell talks exclusively about his years with Sarah Vaughan starting in 1958, the critical After Hours at the London House date, and what goes through a pianist's head when playing behind a singer like Sassy, who was famous for going off in any given direction at any time on a song.
JazzWax tracks: Ronnell Bright's first ensemble recording, Trombones: Featuring Frank Wess, Flute, is a brilliant album—as are all Frank Wess albums from the 1950s. Wess' writing is spot-on, and his flute playing is vivid and impassioned. Add four rich bones and Ronnell on piano, and you have a winner. Especially stunning is the track Wanting You, which opens as a ballad but springs into an uptempo swinger. But to single any one tune out seems a little silly. This entire album is frighteningly perfect and a tribute to Ozzie Cadena's good taste and sensibility. Sadly, the CD is out of print and fetches around $32 on Amazon from independent sellers. The LP recently was selling for $22 on eBay. For the CD, go here.
Ronnell's next album, Bright's Spot, with Leonard Gaskin on bass and Kenny Burrell on guitar was recorded in September 1956. The fact that there was no drummer on the date is a testament to Ronnell's ability to keep perfect time with his left hand. Recorded for Savoy, the CD is out of print but can be found here from independent sellers for around $30.
Streamline: The Rolf Kuhn Quartet was recorded in November 1956 on John Hammond's Vanguard label. The LP is very difficult to find and sells for upward of $100. I don't believe the recording has ever been released on CD.
JazzWax video clips: Here's another clip of Ronnell playing with the Harry "Sweets" Edison Orchestra during a swing through Japan in 1989. On this track, trumpeter Snooky Young plays Neal Hefti's Li'l Darlin'. Ronnell sat in for Count Basie frequently over the years, when Basie had unavoidable obligations that took him away from the band. Ronnell filled big shoes perfectly with his effortless sense of time, his love of simplicity, and sensitive fills. The concert was issued on CD by Concord as Dear Mr. Basie but is out of print. There are no plans to re-issue it. The album is available here from used sellers or here as a Japanese import.