Exclusive Q&A with Harvard grad Gerry Bryant (composer, pianist)
Q: You have a new album, The Composers, coming out this month that features Black classical composers who have been overlooked throughout history. What was the research and selection process like for finding and choosing who would be included on the album?
I found it ironic that not only have many if not most people I’ve spoken to been unaware of the existence of immensely talented Black classical music composers in our nation’s history -- which not very favorably speaks to our country’s educational system in general and in particular to our society’s lack of recognition of the contributions of groups other than white males, i.e., minorities, women, and other groups – but neither had I, and I have been an aspiring concert pianist and composer since I was ten! And I’m Black as well! Go figure. . .
Q: The album features the works of Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, a slave who was perhaps the first Black American classical music composer, and Florence Price, whom you’ve listed as one of your favorite composers. Are there any other composers on this album you’d like to highlight or talk about?
This album is intended to be the first volume of a series featuring Black classical composers. Indeed, I’m working on the second volume as we speak, but who knows when that will ever be completed! My original intent was to have one or two compositions by up to a dozen amazing composers on each album, but once I found out about “Blind Tom”, whose story is fascinating, I knew I wanted to include more than just two of his compositions. Even more tellingly, once I learned more about Florence Price and heard her music, I immediately fell in love with her work and knew that there were many more works of hers than just one or two I wanted to record. So, this first volume of The Composers consists of four selections by “Blind Tom” and eleven selections by Florence Price. In fact, whilst the second volume of The Composers will most likely include compositions by six or more other composers, I will also include an amazing string arrangement by my violinist extraordinaire friend Mark Cargill of a major violin and piano composition by Ms. Price that I was unable to include on this first album.
Q: You’ve recorded and independently distributed a dozen albums, each containing classical music, some of your original music, some jazz, and some reimagined pop cover tunes. What led to the release of this album on the Parma Recording’s Navona label?
I had participated in an online seminar on the long overdue but welcome efforts being made by classical music radio stations to increase the diversity of their playlists by including composers and performers, past and present, who are Black, Hispanic, women, etc., who have been sorely underrepresented in such playlists. One of the online seminar participants, who is also part of those efforts, was Bob Lord, CEO of Parma. I later contacted him directly, applauded him and the others he has been partnering with for their efforts, and mentioned my The Composers project. He expressed interest in my album, and one thing led to another, so they will be releasing the album on their label this month.
Q: Your career has been extremely multi-faceted; not only are you a classically trained pianist and composer, but you also have your J.D. and an M.B.A, and you’ve done lots of arts advocacy and volunteer work. If you could go back, is there anything you would change or do differently in your career path?
Well, I never intended to do -- or even thought about doing – any of the things you’ve mentioned other than to simply play the piano and compose! I did decide to become a lawyer in the entertainment business – my own lawyer, mind you, not a lawyer for anyone else! – so that I would learn and know the business of music well and not get ripped off, as many musicians and artists do when they blindly enter into contracts without knowing better or consulting a trusted, knowledgeable and experienced attorney. I’ve since learned that what I accomplished – getting a J.D. and an M.B.A. simultaneously, working for a noted entertainment law firm, participating in seminars and workshops on the industry, etc., was total overkill. I didn’t need to do all of that. I really only needed to acquire a basic knowledge of how things work in the arts and entertainment industry and then surround myself with a team of individuals – lawyers, agents, managers, publicists -- who were deeply knowledgeable and believed in me and my music and whom I trusted. The time I spent pursuing all of the industry-specific business education I acquired, especially in the arduous J.D./M.B.A. program I went through, could have been more productively spent specifically on my music, practicing, composing, gigging, etc. But as I look back, and to answer your question whether there is anything I would change if I had to do it over again, not really. All of my experiences contributed to what made me the person I am today and to the music that I create.
Q: Classical music sometimes gets a reputation for being. . . well, archaic. How do you think we can generate excitement about classical works, particularly for younger audiences, when it comes to music education?
Appreciating and enjoying “serious” music like classical music and jazz first involves being exposed to it. Ideally, that would come at an early age through our educational system, but arts and music education programs and funding have decreased dramatically since I was a child. The way to expose our youth to such artistic pursuits nowadays is to reach them where they spend most of their time, which is on social media. Indeed, according to recent studies, young people engage with orchestral and classical music more on social media than in the classroom, especially on TikTok, which is helping to discover the next general of young classical talent and is filled with classical music stars. TikTok creators have taken the medium and invented their own ways of enjoying music, including classical music. So up next for me is to establish a presence on TikTok!
Q: Who are your top five favorite composers to listen to and/or play?
That’s an easy question. I am a true romantic at heart -- musically and socially speaking -- and my favorite composers are those of the Romantic Era, i.e., Chopin (who tops the list), Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and now, though she wasn’t of that particular era, Florence Price.
Q: Your last album, Besotted, contains a classical x swing jazz x gospel reimagining of Katy Perry's “California Girls”. What do you think is the value or importance of reimagining and infusing different musical styles together?
That’s a good question. For me, my music is a reflection of my overall life experiences and my arts and musical educational upbringing, all of which are varied, eclectic, and broad ranging. With my love for all genres of music, it is only natural that my music, whether my original compositions or my recordings of cover songs that end up being reimagined versions of the versions by the original artists, speaks to me and is an honest reflection of how I envision the piece. I couldn’t mimic or recreate any cover song if I tried, and not that I’d ever want to. I think in general that is what all artists do. Artists take something that inspires them to create their art, be it a landscape, a person, an event, a photo, an idea, whatever, and what they create reflects all of the elements of their life experiences and training I just mentioned.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring young musicians and artists?
Two things. First, always keep working at your art, continue to learn from the art and approach of other artists who came before you, and don’t get discouraged. Second, make it a point to become educated about the legal and business aspects of your art. Most artists have little or no knowledge or understanding of what is involved in having their art distributed, promoted, exhibited, or “exploited” as lawyers say, leaving them vulnerable to being taken advantage of or to entering into unfavorable business relationships. Knowledge is the key to everything and to ensuring an artist’s ultimate success with their art. Joining and taking advantage of the legal, educational and dispute resolution services of an organization such as California Lawyers for the Arts, whose mission is to educate and empower artists of all disciplines, is a good way to start. And of course, Harvardwood is also a valuable organization for assisting artists in navigating the business components of their creative careers.
Q: What is your favorite piece on your new album?
I have two by Ms. Price: the second movement of her “Sonata in E Minor”, and “Andante Con Espressione”, a lovely violin and piano piece with violinist Mark Cargill. If our readers are so inclined and I can put in a plug for it, I encourage them to view the YouTube video of us performing the piece.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
“Free time”?? LOL. What is that?
Gerry’s album, The Composers, will be officially released on Parma Recordings’ Navona label and available on all platforms on January 13, 2022. Until then, you can stream and download it on Bandcamp.