Betty Bryant has a long career of gracing the air with beautiful music. With a voice that’s powerful when it needs to be, at turns delicate, forlorn, and brazen, by all accounts she is the quintessential professional, a quiet giant of vocal jazz. What lends a unique authenticity is that she describes her sound as being closer to talking than actual singing, which translates as natural, honest storytelling. She can tell her tales from now to infinity and the listener will always be enthralled.
With roots in Kansas City, Missouri, the California singer/songwriter’s career highlights are impressive and plentiful: the 2009 CD No Regrets that got airplay on over one hundred jazz stations, her 2013 CD iteration+ that appeared on JazzWeek’s national charts, the annual Betty Bryant Birthday Bash in Hollywood, and other milestones that have built a strong foundation for her unique catalog. She often performs with the vocalist Mark Christian Miller, whose interview here is forthcoming.
When did jazz first grab you?
Although I took classical piano lessons as a child, jazz was always hovering in the background — mostly in the form of boogie-woogie which just about everybody I knew played. Good old I, IV, V changes and every version of boogie-woogie bass you could think of. Television had not yet been invented and most people (that I knew) had pianos. I was lucky. I had a beautiful Chickering baby grand but my best friend had a rickety old upright and, as far as we were concerned, they sounded alike!
What was your first performance as a vocalist? As a pianist?
As a pianist, I did recitals every year with a group of other students taught by my piano instructor. At 16, I had my own recital — all classical but for one piece. I can’t remember the name but it was by Josef Myrow! As a vocalist, I now find it hard to believe, but I was a stand-up singer with Buddy Brown’s band in Topeka, Ks.
How do you choose your songs for a set?
Variety. Swing, blues, be-bop, vocal, instrumental, Latin/Brazilian, etc. Depends on the audience. I lean heavily on the blues because my audiences seem to want me to.
What have been the biggest challenges in your career and how have you overcome them?
I think I’ve had it pretty easy for the most part. In the beginning I played single for the most part so playing requests was always a challenge. I never did accompany singers though — if a customer wanted to sing, I would smile sweetly and let them know I had no problem sharing my stage but they would have to provide their own accompanist. Surprisingly, I got away with this!
Do you feel these issues exist today and in what way?
Aha! THOSE issues/ There were racial issues in KC but they were more or less hidden. I can remember being stopped by the police only once. I was in a car with Jay McShann and his band (yes, we were all crammed in there). We had been invited to the home of a wealthy customer for some after-hour jamming. The police stopped us for being in that neighborhood in the middle of the night. The guitar player told me to keep my mouth shut and I obeyed. It was scary but the hosts of the party had provided a business card and the police called them and we got away OK. This is the ONLY real Jim Crow event I ever experienced.
Of your international traveling for performances, what surprises you the most about the audiences?
Mostly I have found audiences to be pretty much the same — one night they’re appreciative, another night they may be into getting drunk. I don’t think it is fair to generalize one way or the other.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
I absolutely cannot come up with a list. I KNOW I would leave someone out. I guess I could start out with Bart Howard. I love the English language and I love internal rhymes so I sometimes get hooked on obscure songs.
How did you cultivate your voice and how do you keep your voice healthy and supple?
Now this IS funny! I don’t have much of a voice and I never have had one. I’ve always considered myself an interpreter of songs rather than an actual singer. So I sort of half-sing, half-talk most songs. I don’t always go for the rhyme if it interrupts the flow of the thought behind the phrase. So sometimes I’m really keeping the music going while not matching it with the phrasing of the lyrics. As I try to write this out, it doesn’t seem to make sense, but it works for me. LOL I am referring to the way I handle ballads mostly. Up-tempo pieces depend on accents falling in the right places to keep them swinging.
What is the scene like on the West Coast today?
There seems to be a lot of good music around. I think I should get out more because I don’t get to see everyone I’d like to see/hear. There have never been jam sessions here like there were in KC. (To my knowledge!) But there always seems to be something happening.
What would you say to your younger self as you were starting out in music?
Hang in there!
What’s your favorite instrumentation and do you prefer a big band or smaller band?
Although I like the sound of a big band, I guess I prefer smaller groups because you’re able to stretch out more. I don’t have the discipline to play in a big band, personally, and in a small group, I am allowed the freedom to go off in different directions. My band consists of a rhythm section and one person who plays sax and flute. They all have good ears. Yay! If I decided to go baroque or substitute a minor chord for a major one, they ALL go along with me as though it had been planned. They are simply wonderful and allow me so much freedom it is unbelievable. I like my instrumentation in the small group — piano, bass, drums and sax/flute. Although I like the sound of a guitar, I rarely perform with a guitar player because I would be stuck with having to play the same chords as him/her. A few years ago I recorded with my group plus a horn section and a REAL arrangement. It was thrilling because it was the first time I ever heard any of my compositions played with this full band sound. I LOVED it but I never want to do that with a live audience. It’s a lot more fun for me to just let the music happen.
Besides technology, what is the biggest change in the music business since you started?
It all boils down to technology on some level. I don’t care for a lot of it but I am happy that sound equipment is better than it used to be and certainly more accessible. I really don’t know much about technology — I just show up and play!
What venues in the world would you like to play that you have not been to yet?
No idea! I never did make it to Europe and I am too old to go now but maybe I would like to have performed in Paris and London and Italy. This bit of wishful thinking is more about being a tourist than actual venues in which to perform.
For more information, visit www.bettybryant.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© 2022 Debbie Burke