Jazz pianist-singer Betty Bryant, an internationally popular performer for well more than 60 years, may be semiretired now, but she fully retains the remarkable talent that's made her known from Rio to Tokyo. Ironically, the classically trained Bryant, who appears Thursday at Descanso Gardens, at one point just up and quit playing music altogether.
"I was trained as a child, yes, but it was by rote. I didn't learn theory or any of that stuff," the 86-year-old said. "I just played the pieces they taught me, and we'd have a recital every year, all the children would perform. When I was 16, I had my own recital and after that decided I didn't want to play piano at all. I was just tired of all the practicing. But when I discovered Jay McShann, who became my friend and mentor, I started playing blues, and that made the piano much more interesting."
McShann, of course, was a famed, majestically swinging pianist-bandleader and one of the key musical forces in Bryant's hometown of Kansas City, Mo. Birthplace of Count Basie, Big Joe Turner, Mary Lou Williams and Charlie Parker, Kansas City was a jazz and blues epicenter rivaled only by New Orleans, and Bryant's futile attempt to avoid her musical destiny was appropriately short-lived.
"In those days everything was segregated, so if you were a member of the black community you pretty much already knew everyone. And there was only one union for black musicians ... that was where I really first met Jay McShann and he got to know me," Bryant said. "He was working in the white clubs, and since I wasn't allowed to sit in the audience, he'd put me onstage with him. I'd sing and he'd let me play, and that was how I got to hear him play. I was working at another white club, the Uptown, but I finished before he did, so I'd always stop in on my way home. And that was how I evolved musically."
In 1955, Bryant relocated to Los Angeles but initially had difficulty finding a gig. "The Union really policed musicians in those days. They had a rule that you couldn't just come into town and start in the clubs," Bryant said. "You had to wait three months. And Earl Grant, who I knew from Kansas City, was here playing at Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills and he got me in as a replacement on his night off. The union had to make an exception for me, but they did, and so I started playing every Monday night."
"After that, everything just fell into my lap. I was doing a single in those days, just me, singing and playing, and I started working in gay bars. There was a place in Altadena and they loved me — everyone would just sit and listen, which was rare. And the owners started bringing me songs, pretty show tunes, all these slow, gorgeous things like John La Touche's 'Lazy Afternoon.'"
Bryant quickly became a staple on the Los Angeles club circuit. On the keys, she has such a marvelously supple, light touch, with that funky, swinging bottom end so typical of Kansas City players and, as a vocalist, Bryant displays a deliciously expressive subtlety.
"I do more interpretations. I really listen to the lyrics and deliver them the way they were meant to be," Bryant said. "And I have all those blues left over from Jay McShann, so I can switch personalities at the drop of a hat."
A chance audition for a Brazilian club owner friend of Sergio Mendes ("I only went because I wanted to see Sergio's house") took her to Rio for an extended SRO engagement; she made annual pilgrimages to Tokyo, spending so much time there she had her own apartment.
"I only stopped doing the Tokyo job because you have to do lot of walking in that city and by the time I was 80, I couldn't get around well enough," Bryant said. "So, nowadays, I just do special events, concerts, things like that. And I'm writing a lot of music for [soap opera] 'The Young and the Restless' with Robert Kyle, who plays sax and flute for me. On the show, there's a club the characters frequently visit, and we've done about 20 songs so far. It's a wonderful job, you don't have to get dressed up for it!"
"And the shows at Descanso are always so much fun," Bryant said. "Last year, we had 1,500 people there. I'd do a blues and everyone would stomp their feet and clap along, and then I'd do a ballad and you could hear a pin drop."
"I was amazed and thrilled. Thrilled is the word."
Who: Betty Bryant
Where: Descanso Gardens, 1418 Descanso Drive, La Cañada Flintridge
When: Thursday, June 30, 6 p.m.
Cost: Free with admission (general $9; seniors and students $6; children 5 through12, $4; members and under 5, free).
More info: (818) 949-4200, www.descansogardens.org