From Jerry Bryant’s perspective the world is flat, and that’s just the way he’d like it to stay.
The jazz pianist, vocalist and former educator, who turns 90 Monday, isn’t interested in any major highs or lows. He attributes his longevity to taking life on an even keel, appreciating all it has given him and constantly striving to learn.
“It affects people differently,” said Bryant on the topic of age. “I guess my gift, the phenomenon, the miracle, seems to be my ability to be on new ground every day.”
In celebration of this milestone, the Island Big Band, with which Bryant has played for about seven years, is getting together for a special birthday performance April 1 at Hermann’s Jazz Club.
Bryant started playing with the band after his wife, Cecilia, died in 2005 and he found himself in need of a purpose. He retired from teaching in 1983, after a long career as an educator in both the United States and Canada. His long list of achievements includes starting the jazz program at Esquimalt High school.
“This band turned out to be a kind of spiritual refuge and it’s growing into a beautiful thing,” Bryant said. “It’s spiritual nourishment, really. It’s everything I need to be spiritually healthy.”
Music has been a part of Bryant’s life since the beginning. Born on April Fool’s day in 1923 in Kansas City, his uncle was famous blues singer and rock and roll pioneer Big Joe Turner. Bryant grew up around musicians such as Oscar Peterson and Bill Haley, soaking in the music surrounding him.
Even after a long lifetime of playing and teaching music, Bryant said he is still constantly learning. One of the reasons he joined the Big Band was to improve his sight reading, a skill in which, he confesses, he has never excelled.
This desire to learn and grow is what Bryant believes keeps him feeling young.
“I just want to stay and grow and learn how to read these charts and keep up with these guys. This is what’s making me look and appear to be cute and young. It’s a chance to try and keep up with these people.”
Band trumpeter Bryn Badel said it’s an honour to have Bryant in the band.
“As the bearer of the torch he’s handing it off to us,” Badel said. “It’s really important to pay tribute to that.
“The jazz tradition is really an oral tradition. … A lot of it’s handed down. The only way to learn it is to be in the moment, to live with guys like that day in and day out – and to learn from them.”
Through all the music he has heard, a few pieces and musicians stand out for Bryant. He admires Count Basie as a musician, for his style of understatement. I’ve Got the World on a String by Harold Arlen, made famous by Cab Calloway and Frank Sinatra, is a favourite tune.
Perhaps most appropriate is another favourite of Bryant’s, Duke Ellington’s I Guess I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So.
“What I believe and what I love, it doesn’t have to be proclaimed from the highest tree loudly,” Bryant said. “To be privileged is to stay and support and be in the background. … I’m just lucky to be here.”
Tickets for Jerry Bryant’s 90th Birthday Party are $10 and are available at Hermann’s Jazz Club (753 View St.). Show is at 8 p.m.