It took me several months and about six phone calls to track down jazz pianist Ronnell Bright. Starting in the 1950s, Ronnell was one of the most sought-after piano accompanists in jazz. No other pianist could match his sensitivity or taste in chords behind a singer, except perhaps for Jimmy Jones. Over the years, Ronnell backed Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson, Doris Day and nearly any other singer who comes to mind. His strong skills as a songwriter and composer led to collaborations with Johnny Mercer, Paul Francis Webster, Sammy Cahn and others. Among the dozens of jazz artists who have recorded his songs are Horace Silver, Stanley Turrentine, Dexter Gordon and Johnny Hartman.
I first fell in love with Ronnell's impeccable touch back in the 1970s, when I heard Sarah Vaughan sing Thanks for the Memory on a vinyl recording of After Hours at the London House. What always struck me about that song, in addition to Sassy's shock-proof cool after twice flubbing the lyrics, was how Ronnell managed to gently start the tune three different ways, using lush chords and fabulous runs. His opening chords for Detour Ahead on the same album still knock me out.
For the past 10 years or so, Ronnell has lived in relative obscurity. I didn't even think he was still around when I started to research him and left messages for people who knew him. So imagine my surprise when three weeks ago I answered my ringing cellphone and the voice at the other end said, "Marc? This is Ronnell Bright." I nearly fell off my chair. There on the phone was my hero of that famous Sarah Vaughan session and so many others.
When I asked Ronnell whether the people in his town knew who he was, he laughed. "They know I play piano well, but that's about it." Over the course of several phone interviews, Ronnell, 77, talked about how he got his start, playing and touring with Sarah in the late 1950s, subbing for Count Basie on No Count Sarah, his encounters with Erroll Garner, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong and others, and playing with Nancy Wilson. We even talked about a few sessions that almost took place with Ella, Barbra and Doris but never came to pass due to twists of fate.
In Part 1 of my five-part interview, Ronnell talks about growing up in Chicago and how he got his start. Yep, it's Ronnell Bright Week at JazzWax, and when we're through, you're going to love Ronnell just as much as I do:
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Ronnell Bright: I was born in 1930 and grew up in the Chicago. My family was very supportive, and I went to a good school We lived on the South Side of Chicago, the Woodlawn area, which was a nice part of town. My father was a preacher, a straight-up guy and real nice. My mother was a former schoolteacher. I had three sisters and a brother. I was the baby in the family, and we had a beautiful time. We were a very musical family.
JW: Who did you listen to as a kid?
RB: Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra. My sister, Della Bright, was a singer in a vocal trio called the Rhythm Debs. They sang with Fletcher [pictured] whenever he came to Chicago. Fletcher used to come over to our house and chart out the vocal arrangements and rehearse the trio on our piano. I was four years old, but they let me sit there because I was very quiet.
JW: Did you understand what was going on?
RB: Oh, my yes. The playing and singing were so great. That’s when I got the bug to be a musician and go into show business. Another guy who used to come to the house all the time was David Young, a saxophone player. And my older sister married a saxophonist. I heard so much saxophone in the house that I wanted to play tenor.
JW: But you wound up a pianist.
RB: That was not my choice. It was my parents’ decision. We had an old upright and before I could see the keys I’d reach up and try to play notes. My parents started me on piano lessons when I was five years old. At first I didn’t like practicing, but later on I took to it. My teacher, Jeanne Fletcher, taught me classical—Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and all of that. I had to practice at least an hour a day before I was allowed to go out to play.
JW: Audiences didn’t scare you?
RB: I was the kid who played classical music at all of the high school events. My memory was very good, and playing came naturally to me. When I was 8, I was called a child prodigy. I’d give recitals at theaters downtown, and teachers would bring their favorite students to hear me play. I always got nice mentions in the newspapers, and playing was a natural part of my background.
JW: Did you go to music school after graduation?
RB: I went for a year to a junior college and then decided to go my own way. In 1948, I enlisted in the navy and played in the band on our aircraft carrier, which toured the Caribbean. On board was singer Julius LaRosa [pictured]. We used to have music programs on board, what they used to call "smokers." I’d play piano and Julius sang. We became great friends. In 1949, I left the navy but had to remain in the reserves for four years. Just after I was discharged, I heard that Arthur Godfrey came aboard the carrier and discovered Julius.
JW: What happened after you left the navy?
RB: Actually, that period was short-lived. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, I was called back into the navy. They sent me to Washington, D.C., where they were going to ship me out. While I was there, I walked into the Navy School of Music based at the U.S. Naval Receiving Station, Anacostia Annex, as it was known then. Musicians were trained there for performances at the White House, Treasure Island in San Francisco, and other military facilities. I told them I was a pianist, but I wasn't immediately accepted because I was only in for a year. I asked if my orders could be changed to be a musician. So they auditioned me.
JW: How did you do?
RB: My classics were up to par. But then they asked me to play How High the Moon. I couldn’t because I wasn’t a jazz musician. I liked Nat King Cole—his smoothness, subtleness and creativity. But I was trained to be a classical pianist. They liked me and said they’d take me into the school if within six months I learned 25 popular songs and all the chord changes. It was the first time they had someone who was a proficient classical player but unfamiliar with the popular stuff.
JW: How did you pick up jazz so quickly?
RB: A few jazz musicians who were in school there helped break me in.
JW: Who were the musicians?
RB: Julian Adderley [pictured], his brother Nat, and Eric Dolphy. The army had sent their people to the Navy Music School, too. We were all together at that school for three months. Fake books had just started coming out, so I did a lot of playing and listening to get used to jazz. I think the first jazz song I played was I’m an Old Cowhand. Julian and I were in the barracks one day and he said his group needed a piano player for a gig that night. I said I didn’t know chord changes. But he said it didn’t matter, they needed a piano player. So it was me, Julian, Nat and Eric playing a gig in Washington, DC.
JW: But you didn't know how to play jazz. What happened?
RN: When we got there, Julian called for Blue Room. I said, "Blue Room? What is that, the blues?” They teased me about that for years. Once they started playing the song, though, my ear figured out the chord changes. I’m not saying what I played was correct, but I worked it out. I played two or three jobs with them. Washington, DC, back then was still the South. On breaks, we had to go sit in the kitchen because they didn’t allow blacks to mingle with the audience then.
JW: So Cannonball, Nat and Dolphy got you started?
RB: Yes! What a group, right? Next I worked a gig with trumpeter Duke Garrette, who also was attending the Navy Music School. He had been with Lionel Hampton, and working with him let me learn some jazz songs. I had the technique. I just didn’t know how to weave and interweave chords. Swinging seemed to come natural to me, probably because of my love for Nat King Cole. One thing led to another, and the navy sent me to Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay [pictured] to perform in an 18-piece orchestra. There were good players in that band. On the weekends, I’d go into San Francisco with some of the guys and play officers’ parties, too. This was 1952-53.
JW: What did you do when you were discharged?
RB: I returned to Chicago and played piano as a solo. At this time, bassist Johnnie Pate was working with pianist Don Shirley as a duo. They were working at club called The Streamliner. Someone had heard Johnnie and Don, and tried to hire them to play The Embers in New York. Don went but Johnnie didn’t because he had a family. Johnnie recommended bassist Richard Davis instead. So Johnnie kept the job at The Streamliner. When I heard Johnnie needed a pianist, I contacted him and told him I was interested. He invited me over his house. I played piano for him but clearly didn’t have the mentality for jazz. Yet he liked my enthusiasm and was very patient with me. He showed me how to get through chord changes and worked with me on substitute chords and key changes. He hired drummer Charles Walton, and we worked The Streamliner for about a year. We also recorded in Chicago in 1955 as the Johnnie Pate Trio for Talisman Records. That was my first recording date, and the trio gave me a taste for how exciting jazz could be.
Tomorrow, Ronnell talks about moving to New York in 1956, his first recording session for Savoy, his first Savoy date as a leader for producer Ozzie Cadena, the bassist and drummer he chose for his first trio, and an agreement with John Hammond to back up clarinetist Rolf Kuhn on a record in exchange for getting his own trio recorded.
JazzWax tracks: Unfortunately the Johnnie Pate Trio's recordings for Talisman Records are not available on CD. Fresh Sounds issued an LP some time back, but the recordings have not yet be digitally mastered.
JazzWax clips: If you want to see and hear why so many vocalists, big bands and jazz soloists wanted pianist Ronnell Bright behind them, go here and dig Ronnell's extended solo with the Harry "Sweets" Edison Orchestra in 1989. Watch the effect his tasteful, swinging solo has on the band's seasoned pros. The smiles spreading on their faces says it all.