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Paul Bryant dies at 76; key musician in West Coast jazz

The organist and pianist, whose cool sound was a key component in the burgeoning L.A. sound, appeared on eight albums and performed around the world. He also was a child actor.

January 14, 2010|Scott Gold
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Paul Bryant, a South Los Angeles jazz master whose infectious smile and precocious skills in the arts earned him the nickname "The Central Avenue Kid," has died. He was 76.

Bryant died Dec. 4 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after a lengthy hospitalization, said his daughter, Angela Bryant Lott of Inglewood. He had been suffering complications following recent surgeries, and had most recently been living in Good Shepherd Manor near Leimert Park.

A child actor, Bryant appeared in 22 films in the 1940s. But his most lasting legacy is his role in the development of West Coast jazz. A deft organist and pianist, Bryant blended a sophisticated, "cool" sound with what an admirer once described as skills that could have been learned only at the "School of Funkiola."

He appeared on eight albums, most through the Los Angeles label Pacific Jazz Records, and performed around the world -- at Count Basie's Lounge in New York; the Blackberry Jazz Club in Japan; and the L.A. clubs where West Coast jazz was effectively invented, such as Dynamite Jackson's and the Last Word.

"He worked everywhere and worked with just about everybody," said Clora Bryant, a trumpeter, a figure in the city's jazz scene and an editor of the book "Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles." (The two are not related.) "He was a lovable guy. And he was a very good organ and piano player."

Paul Carlton Bryant was born in Asbury Park, N.J., on Sept. 22, 1933, to Gene Odom and Maxwell Bryant. He moved to Los Angeles with his mother, his primary caretaker, at a young age -- "for a better life," Lott said.

Like thousands of other African American families pouring into the city at the time, they settled in South L.A., and quickly became enmeshed in its burgeoning arts community. Bryant's mother had studied drama and had "always wanted to be on stage," Lott said. "That kind of carried over to him."

At 4, Bryant began studying piano at John Gray Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, where he would study for 16 years. He was tap dancing, singing and playing piano publicly by 5, and a newspaper article from 1943 -- when he was in the third grade, and making his debut on CBS Radio -- described him as a "veteran of the footlights."

Bryant made his film debut in "I Married an Angel" in 1942 and also appeared in "Star Spangled Rhythm" and -- as an uncredited "urchin" -- in "Saratoga Trunk," starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.

In 1951, as a senior at Jefferson High School, Bryant joined a school "dance band" whose extraordinary roster reflected the immense interest in the new jazz emanating from South L.A. at the time. Among the teenage band members who would go on to acclaim: the trumpeter Art Farmer; the drummer Ed Thigpen, and the reed man Buddy Collette.

After graduating from Jefferson, Bryant joined the Air Force, where he was assigned to a 16-piece band that performed at numerous bases.

In 1958, he made a decision that would shape his musical career, switching from piano to the organ -- giving him, he said, "better expression." Two years later, a Pacific Jazz executive discovered Bryant at a club on South Broadway, and his jazz career was underway. His first album was "Blues Message," which he recorded with the tenor saxophonist Curtis Amy, a frequent collaborator.

He never formally retired, and performed publicly as recently as 2007. He was also warmly received during several recent performances at the Central Avenue Jazz Festival, when he was in his 70s.

Bryant married the late Shirley Jeanne Harris in 1957; they had an on-and-off relationship into the 1980s. The couple also had a son, Carlton Paul "Buddy" Bryant.

In addition to his children, Bryant is survived by four grandchildren and two sisters, Brenda Corbin and Michelle Martin.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Knox Presbyterian Church, 5840 La Tijera Blvd. Many of his musical contemporaries are expected to perform.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests donating to the Paul Bryant Jazz Education Fund. Donations can be sent to: c/o Angela Lott, P.O. Box 45203, Los Angeles, CA 90045.

scott.gold@latimes.com

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