Ronnell Bright has composed the music and lyrics to more than 100 songs. Some were co-written with Johnny Mercer, Paul Francis Webster and Sammy Cahn. About a half dozen were recorded by a wide range of jazz artists and vocalists. Ronnell also is a singer and an arranger. Yet Ronnell is probably best known as Sarah Vaughan's accompanist between 1958 and 1960 and again in 1963. During this period, Ronnell and Sarah recorded No Count Sarah, After Hours at the London House, Vaughan and Violins, Dreamy and other live and studio albums.
In Part 3 of my interview, Ronnell reflects on how he met Sassy, their close working relationship, why Sarah stumbled over the word "Parthenon" on After Hours at the London House, how Sarah reacted when he told her he was leaving to join Nancy Wilson, and what accompanying Sarah or any other greater song interpreter requires of a pianist:
JazzWax: Did you and producer John Hammond get along well?
Ronnell Bright: Yes. After the Rolf Kuhn recording and my trio date in late 1957, John encouraged Willard Alexander to come hear me play. At the time, Willard booked all the major bands and jazz artists. After Willard heard me, he signed me right away. One of the first jobs Willard booked my trio into was the Boom Boom Room at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami [pictured]. We played there for a week.
JW: What was playing the Fontainebleau like?
RB: Oh, beautiful. It was quite thrilling. Frank Sinatra was upstairs. The audiences were great. And stars dropped by to hear us play every night. But back at that time, blacks couldn’t stay on the same side of the beach as whites. We could work in the hotel, but when we got through we had to take a cab over the bridge to the Sir John Hotel. Basie’s band had to stay there, too. Same with Sammy Davis, Jr. and Lena Horne.
JW: When did you meet Sarah Vaughan?
RB: Around this time in 1957, Willard booked my trio into Storyville in Boston. Working opposite me was Sarah with Jimmy Jones on piano, Richard Davis on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. Sarah was a good friend of Carmen McRae’s and she knew of me. When I went into Storyville, I used Ray Crawford on guitar and a bass player whose name I can't recall. During the gig, Ray leaned over and said, “Hey, man, Sarah is sitting at a table right behind you checking you out.” I didn’t really pay much attention to what Ray said. We played opposite her for about a week.
JW: How did you become her accompanist?
RB: At the end of 1957, Jimmy Jones decided he was going to stay in New York and become a composer and arranger rather than continue to tour with Sarah. He had been with her for 10 years and wanted a change. So George Treadwell, Sarah's husband and manager at the time, called me. I went down to see him at his office in the Brill Building. He said Sarah was deciding between me and Wynton Kelly [pictured] and that it was down to money. I said it would be honor to play for Sarah and whatever she thought would be fair was fine with me. The next thing I knew, I got a call telling me to join her in Washington, D.C. Our first record date in January 1958 was for a few songs used on No Count Sarah. I played piano behind Sarah with Count Basie's band instead of Basie. I don’t know why Basie wasn’t on that date. I suppose I was there because I was Sarah's accompanist, and Basie honored me in that role by letting me play.
JW: You and Sarah were in Chicago in March 1958?
RB: Yes. We were playing Mister Kelly's. Late one night, around 2 am, after the third set, we rushed over from Mister Kelly's to the London House. We were going over there to record a live album for Mercury. If I recall, the same person owned both clubs. That was an amazing night. Everyone I knew was there: bassist Johnnie Pate, pianist Dick Katz, the guys who wrote Detour Ahead—guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist John Frigo. The place was packed. I think the session was the first time a record company recorded a live jazz date cold.
JW: Wasn't there any rehearsal?
RB: Not only were there no rehearsals, there were no charts. There was no time. Sarah went out and bought piano sheet music for each musician and passed it out on stage, at 2 am, just before we started recording. We had to transpose the sheet music to her keys. Everyone had to scuffle.
JW: How did four members of the Basie band wind up on the date?
RB: That's right—Frank Wess, Thad Jones, Wendell Culley and Henry Coker were there, along with me, Richard Davis and Roy Haynes. I believe Basie's band was in Chicago that week recording for Roulette.
JW: What happened on Thanks for the Memory? Sarah trips over the word "Parthenon," and she stops the song—twice.
RB: Sarah had sheet music for the song, like everyone else, and was reading the word "Parthenon," which was hyphenated. She was unfamiliar with the word or what the Parthenon was. So she couldn’t figure out where the emphasis was supposed to go. She stopped cold and calmly worked it out. That was Sarah, recording session or no recording session. No one on stage was prepared for that, as you can hear from the record. It was a live recording, and Sarah doing that was a little scary. But this is what made the session so exciting.
JW: Did you think she was going to abandon the song after the second stumble on the same word?
RB: I had no idea. I was about to say “Parth-ah-non” out loud to help her, but I caught myself, remembering we were recording live. So I stayed quiet. Sarah worked her way through it and kept the moment alive. That's what makes the recording so fresh today, the imperfection and the human quality of trying to fix a mistake. After the session, at around 4 am, we all went out to breakfast and had a blast.
JW: I always found it remarkable that you start Thanks for the Memory with subtle differences each time.
RB: You had to, or Sarah would hear you trying to do what you already did, which to her would be lazy. Sarah rarely did anything the same way twice. She came up through the ranks with Charlie Parker. It was a badge of honor to do things differently each time. There was no other way.
JW: Was it tough to anticipate what Sarah was going to do with a song?
RB: Sometimes. Sarah would change keys in the middle of a song. She’d go somewhere else, and we’d have to find her. She taught all of her sidemen ear training. You had seconds to figure out what she was going to do. It became intuitive. But once we were comfortable with her, we'd do the same thing to her. She’d sing in one key and we’d change keys so she’d have to find us. She liked the challenge.
JW: You were with Sarah for about two years.
RB: That's right. After the London House recording, we left for Europe, starting with performances at the Brussels World’s Fair [pictured]. Then we toured all over for about four months and recorded Vaughan and Violins in Paris in July 1958.
JW: Was Sarah all business?
RB: Yes, when it came to the music. But before and after a performance, she loved to have fun. And she was a mischief-maker, to throw you off your game. She’d hide our shoes just before the trio had to go out on stage. So we'd be out there with just our socks on. But we gave it back. She had this pink satin gown that she liked to wear night after night. We were tired of seeing it, so we buried it outside in a box.
JW: Did she know?
RB: She probably figured it out. She came out of her dressing room asking, “Where’s my gown? Who has my gown?” We never told her. Sarah was one of the guys, and she knew that fooling around was part of what made the music special. John Collins, Nat Cole's guitarist after Oscar Moore left, said that he was on a band bus with Sarah in the 1950s and fell asleep. When he woke up in the dead of night, Sarah was driving the bus. That's the kind of woman she was. Sarah called me her “backbone” and was very protective of me and all her musicians.
JW: While you were in Paris, you recorded an unusual trio date with Richard Davis on bass and Art Morgan on drums. It's unusual because instead of lush treatments, you're playing is heavy and bop-influenced. How did that come about?
RB: In late spring 1958, I went to the Mars Club. There were a few pianists there, including Hazel Scott, playing solo. So we had a jam session. Afterward, a guy approached me about recording for Polydor. I used Richard Davis and Art Morgan, an English drummer who was playing in town with Ted Heath's orchestra. I know what you mean, it was a different sound for me. I felt free and wanted to record faster, springy pieces I had written. After the tour, when we returned to the U.S. later in 1958, we played clubs and concerts with Sarah. Then we recorded the rest of No Count Sarah and another Mercury session arranged by Belford Hendricks.
JW: You left Sarah in 1960. Why?
RB: I needed to make more money. Roland Hanna replaced me on piano. I started another trio with Peck Morrison and Denzil Best, and we played mostly at the Cafe Bohemia and Birdland in New York. After my work with Sarah, I was very much in demand as an accompanist, so I found a lot of work with Lena Horne [pictured] and other singers. One time I was with Al Hibbler [pictured], somewhere in the mid-West. He had a nice car but he'd have to get his accompanist to drive, of course, because he was blind. I remember it was just the two of us, sometime in 1960. We drove to Indiana or Michigan. It was a one-nighter. We drove there, and he got in an argument with management because the owner didn’t want to give him his money immediately. It was a banquet or something. So Al went back to get paid and I went with him. He knocked on the door. There were two rough guys in there. Al asked again for his money. As soon as they start making excuses, Al starts swinging. I said, "No, no, Al, no, no man." Al didn't care. He starts screaming, "I want my money now." Well, he got paid, like always, in dollar bills, so he'd know exactly how much he had.
JW: You returned to Sarah in 1963. Why?
RB: Sarah wrote me from Sweden telling me that the city had reminded her how much fun we had in 1958 and asked if I'd accompany her again. Kirk Stuart, her pianist, was going to leave upon their return. When she got back, she came over to my house and talked to me about returning. The timing was good, since a show Lena Horne and her conductor and husband Lenny Hayton had put together was disbanding. So I went back with Sarah for a few months. Sarah recorded a few of my songs—Missing You and I've Got to Talk to My Heart.
JW: You left Sarah again in 1964 for good, this time for Nancy Wilson.
RB: Again, it was a money issue. Nancy Wilson's manager, John Levy, asked me to accompany Nancy and rehearse the band. I had a wife and family to support, and John was offering me twice the money Sarah was paying me. More important, I was going to get paid whether we worked or not, which was key then.
JW: How did Sarah take the news?
RB: I called Sarah on the phone and said that I got an offer I can't turn down. She said, "What do you mean?" I told her the financial terms I was being offered and said, "Sarah, look, there's no one I'd rather play for but you. You're the boss. But the offer is too good." So Sarah asks, "Who is it?" I said, "It's a young girl, Nancy Wilson." There was the big pause. Then Sarah quietly said, "Alright, Ronnell" and slammed the phone down so hard I could imagine pieces of it flying everywhere on her end. Bob James replaced me on piano with Sarah.
JW: Is it hard to be an accompanist?
RB: It’s tricky. If you’re an accompanist, you’re listening to find ways to enhance what the singer is trying to do. You're listening to the words. You're listening to hear when the singer breathes and the singer's phrasing. You learn when to fill in, to lead them to the next phrase if you sense what's coming up. Or you may need to get out of the way. It’s a delicate, delicate operation that takes place seconds before notes come out.
JW: Who taught you the most as an accompanist?
RB: Sarah. She taught me how to stay out of singer’s way and how to build before a singer opens up and emerges into something else. Playing behind a singer is strategic. I never had much piano music with people like Sarah and Carmen. I had the chord changes and that was about it. They were so busy phrasing or coming in when they wanted to come in. That forced you get into their heads and made you listen to what they were doing. The first thing you learn playing as an accompanist is how to listen. When you do, you’re taking that trip with them.
JW: How could you anticipate where Sarah was going on a song?
RB: Sarah had a way of telling you when she didn’t want you to fill in. She would tighten up the lyrics. For example, she’d sing: “The evening breeze, caress the treeeees, tenderlyThe shore was kissed…” No gap between the first and second line. She’d go right into the second line without a break. Now normally you would fill right in with notes after that first line, because that’s where most singers catch a breath. But Sarah might want to go on without that break to build toward something else she wantd to draw out. So she'd close the gap, which told you what to do. You’d have to be on your toes so you could anticipate what she was trying to tell you.
JW: That doesn't leave you much time to think.
RB: Tell me about it. Your mind is racing. You have to get there fast. You’re scuffling but you learn. Sarah always listened carefully to what I was playing or what the bass and drums were playing. You can hear on the records how she picked up on what we were doing, and how we did the same thing based on her phrasing.
JW: Was this true only of Sarah?
RB: No. Carmen [pictured] did that, too. She had that level of confidence and skill. It’s like Miles Davis. Most of those people, when they get out there on that stage and they’re really into the moment, they’re not involved with anything that’s set. The fun of the game is spontaneity. It’s like walking on eggs, and the accompanist has to be very sensitive to this. It’s a fun game.
JW: Don't all singers listen to their trios and interact with them on some level?
RB: Oh, no. Most singers feel like they’re doing the whole thing. They feel like when they hire you, they’re the musicians and that you’re just working for them. They try to tie you up a little bit and direct you in your approach to accompanying them. But when they do that on the job, they don’t do anything but frustrate the people they play with. It stops you from opening up and stops you from enhancing what they’re trying to do.
Tomorrow, in Part 4, Ronnell talks about his work with Ella Fitzgerald and relates a heartbreaking story with several twists of fate.
JazzWax tracks: The album that Count Basie recorded in Chicago for Roulette on March 4, 1958 was Chairman of the Board. Which is why four members of Basie's band were available to appear with Sarah Vaughan on After Hours at the London House on March 7.
I've written about After Hours at the London House several times. In my estimation, it remains one of the greatest jazz vocal albums ever recorded. If you don't own it, the remastered recording is available at iTunes and Amazon. The album is intimate and as close as you will get to going back in time to 1958 and experiencing jazz live.
While touring Europe with Sarah in the spring of 1958, Ronnell recorded a trio album in Paris in June. It's available on Jazz aux Champs Elysees. The Gitanes CD combines Ronnell's eight tracks with an album by pianist Art Simmons recorded two years earlier. The CD is available at Amazon. Or just download Ronnell's tracks at iTunes (the final eight starting with Sail 'em). What's fascinating about this album is that Ronnell took a break from creating lush fills and instead plays a robust piano, showing off his bop and gospel chops.
Vaughan and Violins with Ronnell on piano was recorded in Paris in July 1958. The orchestra was under the direction of Quincy Jones, who lived in Paris at the time. This session includes fabulous recordings of Misty and I'm Lost. It's available at Amazon.
No Count Sarah, recorded in January and December 1958, features Ronnell on piano with the Count Basie Orchestra. The album's high point, for me, is an unbeatable rendition of Moonlight in Vermont. If you don't want to invest in this CD, you can download just Moonlight in Vermont from Sarah Vaughan's Golden Hits at iTunes. I guarantee you'll play this track over and over again, and marvel at its sheer beauty.
Ronnell with the Jimmy Jones Orchestra, one of the only times these two brilliant Chicago accompanists worked together with Sarah Vaughan, can be found on Dreamy, recorded in April 1960. It's also available as part of the Mosaic Records box, The Complete Roulette Sarah Vaughan Sessions here.
One of the great albums Ronnell made after leaving Sarah the first time is The Hawk Relaxes, with Coleman Hawkins, Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter and Andrew Cyrille. The 1961 recording recently was remastered by Concord as part of the Rudy Van Gelder series. Ronnell told me that Hawk didn't prepare charts for the date and that the songs were all done using head arrangements.
Ronnell's first album with Nancy Wilson was The Nancy Wilson Show!, recorded in June 1964. Nancy and Ronnell also recorded Tender Loving Care in 1966 (the title tune was written by Ronnell). They also recorded Nancy: Naturally! in July 1966, and Nancy recorded Ronnell's Alone With My Thoughts of You on The Sound of Nancy Wilson, recorded in 1968.
Ronnell won a Grammy in 1973 for his contribution to the album, Supersax Plays Bird.
JazzWax video: To see Sarah and Ronnell in action in 1958, buy the DVD Jazz Icons: Sarah Vaughan Live in '58 and '64. It's available here for about $17.