Bryant Jones has been playing keyboards for more than 50 years. It’s the connective thread through a life of changes.
He started in the late Sixties playing a keyboard his father bought for his 14th birthday. One year later, on his 15th birthday, life took an unconscionable, unalterable turn.
Coming up on his 65th birthday this month, Bryant sat down with Humanitou. He shares how he came to live and play improvisationally, about his musical influences and a day working alongside one of them.
He talks about being rescued from a mental hospital by a cousin, embracing the love and peace of the counterculture, and playing his way (almost) to the top of Pikes Peak.
Humanitou: Let’s dive right into the deep here. Is there a particular experience that has served as a shaping factor throughout your life?
Bryant: There’s so many things I wouldn’t know where to start.
I guess, when I first lost my parents when I was 15 years old and ended up going through some mental hospital experiences, that was what really started me off in flying by the seat of my pants.
It kind of influenced my music, and listening to people like The Moody Blues.
Humanitou: Were your parents in an accident together?
Bryant: No. They died 11 months apart. In fact, my dad died on my 15th birthday, March 26, 1969. Then my mother died 11 months after that. Both of them had heart attacks.
That was probably the biggest thing in my life that sent me off. I ended up in a foster home and I lived in some different situations.
I ended up traveling with a band, in a school bus, called the Wackachoo Rivyoo. In fact, I’m going to Canada next month to play with one of those members. That was a comedy band.
We lived in a school bus, basically, on the West Coast, in California, along Highway 1 and Highway 101. We had a full-size upright piano in the bus with us and we’d take it on and off the bus on street corners when we would play for tips.
Then, finally, people started to ask us to come play at their clubs. We kind of graduated. That was in 1979.
Humanitou: I can’t imagine having lost both your parents when so young. Did you have siblings you experienced that with?
Bryant: Yeah, my sister was a year older and she got married. My brother got put in an orphanage called Myron Stratton Home.
Humanitou: Do you mind sharing more about that experience?
Bryant: It was like a nightmare. My dad bought me my first electric organ for my birthday exactly one year before that, for my 14th birthday. That was in 1968. That’s when I really started getting into music.
My dad taught me the chords. That’s what I still go by is the chords and teaching myself from that.
I have recordings of me playing with my dad, me singing with my dad. He was a really good musician. That’s what made me want to be a keyboard player, listening to him play boogie-woogie. He worked at a film place, and he played at night.
Losing him, for all of us, was a major thing. He was the rock that everybody went to. He was a pretty big guy. He was 54 when he died. And my mom was 50 when she died.
Humanitou: Less than a year later, the one parent that you three kids are holding onto–
Bryant: I was in the mental hospital when my mom died. I wasn’t there, but they took me to the funeral.
Humanitou: How long were you in the mental hospital?
Bryant: A year altogether. Six months in one in Denver and six months in Pueblo State Hospital.
Humanitou: How did that come to be?
Bryant: They didn’t know where to put me, I think, is basically what it was. I was getting in trouble with my friends, getting put in Zeb Pike (Youth Services Center) for shoplifting and stuff like that. They didn’t know what to do with me.
It’s kind of fuzzy, a lot of it. They put me in those and then my cousin, Rich, got me out. I feel like he rescued me from the state hospital. If it weren’t for him, I’d probably still be there.
They were looking at long-term care, and they had me on all kinds of drugs and stuff. So my cousin got me out of there and I was living with him. I ended up leaving and getting in a foster home.
Humanitou: You’d recently lost your dad. You were young and taken from your family. How do you take that in?
Bryant: I don’t know. They just thought I was depressed. They had me on antidepressants. I mean, I was depressed, but it doesn’t seem like anybody wouldn’t have been depressed if they’d lost their parent. And then my mom died while I was inside.
Humanitou: And when that news came to you?
Bryant: It was a nightmare. It was really bad. I guess I’m a survivor. I survived all of it and kept going, and I’m still doing my music.
I’ve played with some of the guys from the Grateful Dead. I’ve played with some really good musicians around here. I’m still playing with three or four different bands.
Humanitou: You performed with members of the Dead?
Bryant: I worked with them and did a 15-show tour with two of their keyboard players. All in Colorado, through the ski resorts, and Mishawaka and State Bridge, places like that. That was really fun.
Humanitou: You’ve been playing keyboards for 50 years. It connects you to your father. You’ve made a life of it. How would you describe music in your life, and how you’ve used that through it all?
Bryant: I really am thankful I learned music, and also piano tuning when I was in the foster home. They hooked me up with vocational rehabilitation. They knew I wanted to be a musician but they didn’t know if I could make a living at it. That was in 1972.
So I’ve been tuning pianos ever since then, and also playing. Between those two things I kind of just get by.
Humanitou: Could you imagine living without playing the piano and without music at the heart of your life?
Bryant: No. No, I can’t, really. In fact, it’s weird that you say that, because last night I had a dream. I was really sad in my dream and it had to do with retiring from playing.
I’m glad I can still play, and I love it just as much as ever. I can still play as well as ever.
Bryant: I still play music with other people that is specific songs and cover songs. I still do that all the time. Usually when I play solo, I just make it up as I go. That was influenced by a piano player named Keith Jarrett.
He came out with some solo albums in the mid-Seventies where the whole concert was improvised. I thought, “That’s what I want to do. I want to get to that.”
That kind of jazz is, basically, what influenced me to be an improviser. Also, the real early jazz, like Earl “Fatha” Hines. That was more like ragtime stride piano.
Humanitou: Music clearly is something you connect with in a strong way. Do you consider it from a philosophical place to be a deeper thing that is more than simply what you do?
Bryant: Yeah, yeah. That’s why I mentioned The Moody Blues. And John Lennon, and his deep, anti-war stuff. I used to go to the anti-war rallies and that stuff.
The Moody Blues, I heard stuff in their music that was beyond. It was, like, other-worldly. That influenced me, too, to try to be a better person and to stop getting in trouble.
Their thing was about love and peace, you know. And they were heavily influenced by the Beatles and John Lennon. Listening to that music it was, like, “I get it. I want to do that. I want my music to go that way.”
Back then I used to listen to The Moody Blues music on a record player. I’d turn it down to half-speed, to 16 r.p.m., and I’d hold the speakers on my head, as if they were giant headphones.
I’d literally put the speakers on my shoulders and listen to it as if they were in stereo, with the turntable slowed down. That influenced me, probably, more than anything.
It just gave it a whole different timbre. It made it sound like slow-moving clouds, or something. It was like Debussy, or something. In fact, Debussy is another one of the big influences.
Humanitou: John Lennon. I’ve really appreciated his work and his message. My sons ask me about him and the circumstances of his death over and over, “Why did that happen?”
Bryant: He was definitely the major figure in that whole movement of anti-war. He was the main spokesperson, the voice for those people.
Humanitou: What was the impact for you when Lennon was killed?
Bryant: It was more reality. More reality that you hate to hear about.
It was kind of a feeling of, we’re really on our own now. We’re on our own in this world and we have to just give what we have, what we can.
Humanitou: You have had some difficult experiences. You have lived through tumultuous times in our more recent history, too.
Bryant: One thing that was cool when I was in the foster home in Greeley (Colo.), I had some really nice foster parents. They were really cool. They didn’t try to hurt me or anything.
I remember the first time I came home and it was my first time being really stoned. They just took me and put some headphones on me, the Beatles’ Abbey Road, I think it was.
They helped me. They inspired me a lot. Mike and Rita.
Humanitou: Are you still in touch with them?
Bryant: Yeah. In fact, my third CD (Impromptu or Maybe Three) is coming out and Rita is going to be doing the graphics. She’s an excellent graphic artist. They live in San Francisco. They come out here and visit once in a while. It’s pretty neat.
Humanitou: Was that counterculture something you engaged in?
Bryant: I used to go to all the anti-war marches that I knew about, and anti-nuke. I’d go to California and go to marches with people. I was, basically, a hippy. I got into the counterculture thing.
Humanitou: What did you learn from those experiences, and from that cultural time?
Bryant: I learned the way things change. Things change in ways you would never expect. There’s not much of an anti-war movement these days. I miss that. And the peace hippies. I miss them.
I felt like I had kind of a camaraderie back then. I still do, but there’s not as big of a movement now.
Humanitou: How do you look at death? You have intimate experience with your parents. We’ve talked about John Lennon. So, I’m asking about it as a subject that many people are afraid of and uncomfortable talking about.
Bryant: It makes you more aware that you’re not immortal. The older you get, you get more and more aware of that.
Humanitou: Has that awareness caused you to live with fearlessness, or maybe with fearfulness?
Bryant: I don’t know if it goes much either way. Sometimes, I guess, I could be afraid, if I feel like I’ve not done a good enough job in this life.
I like to go hiking and just think. The one rule is to only focus on the positive when I go on a hike. ’Cause I want to see what it looks like when I just think of the positive.
I think about death and I think about it like when it’s time for me to go, I just want it to be like walking through a door.
Humanitou: Is that vision of walking through a door influenced by any particular religious ideas or where does that come from for you?
Bryant: The Moody Blues. The Moody Blues had a lot of really positive messages that affect me and my music to this day.
Mike Pinder, with the mellotron, that keyboard. I have a mellotron. I got to work for him one day. That was a huge experience for me.
Got to sit next to him and pass out his posters while he signed autographs. He was really nice. He took me and my girlfriend out to dinner.
Humanitou: Where are you now, musically, compared to those days when you were rolling a piano off a bus onto California street corners to play?
Bryant: I think I’ve improved a lot. In some ways, I don’t have as much energy to play fast stuff as I did back then.
I remember one time I had a gig where I was playing a Steinway upright piano and there were 15 firemen pulling it to the top of Pikes Peak. It was for a music store I worked for. It was called the Piano Push. They pulled it up the Pikes Peak Highway.
I was playing a piano that was on, like, go-kart wheels. There were ropes around it and there were 15 firemen pulling it. It was on the news.
The guy who owned the piano store — he was one of the guys that I tuned pianos for — wanted to be the first one in the Guinness Book of Records to be the first one to push a piano to the top of Pikes Peak.
We went almost to the top. The weather was so bad. There was so much snow they wouldn’t let us go further. I don’t think it made it into the records. I was playing with gloves with the fingers cut out.
Humanitou: Through all these experiences, is there anything you know for sure?
Bryant: I know everything changes. That’s what I’ve figured out. Everything always changes.