Alumni Profile: Gerry Bryant (Concert Pianist / Arts & Entertainment Attorney)
by Sophie Kim AB '24
Author Sophie Kim is an award-winning playwright, performance poet, filmmaker, and author of the poetry collection, SING THE BIRDS HOME (2019, Penmanship Books). Kim served as the 2018-2019 Los Angeles County Youth Poet Laureate, is currently writing an original musical that will premiere this April, and has worked on multiple theater productions at Harvard; find Kim at thesophiekim.com.
At age ten, Gerry Bryant knew he wanted to be a concert pianist. More specifically, Bryant started piano lessons at ten years old, and it all took off from there. He went on to study music, graduate cum laude from both Phillips Andover Academy and Harvard, and receive both his J.D. and M.B.A. from UCLA. A classical concert pianist by training, Bryant also plays in PocketWatch, a musical group he founded, he volunteers for multiple nonprofit arts organizations, and he is also currently the Director of Legal and Business Affairs for Southern California’s PBS stations KCET and PBS So Cal (KOCE).
Bryant grew up in a self-described poor family in Cleveland, where classical music was not something he was exposed to. However, he was immediately drawn to it, describing a field trip to Severance Hall in Cleveland, home of the world renowned Cleveland Orchestra. His family didn’t have a piano, but his grandmother had an old piano. “She didn't play but she sang in church. And whenever we would go to my grandparents' house, I would sit down at the piano and, at ten years old, I’d just pick things out,” Bryant said. When they noticed his talent, his parents arranged to provide him with lessons, and it was years later that Bryant would learn about the sacrifices his family made, with his father working extra jobs, to pay for the lessons.
However, Bryant didn’t always find an audience in his community. He recounted a story when, at twelve or thirteen years old, some adult relatives and neighbors were gathered at their family home. Someone asked his mother if he would play a song, and she told Bryant, who reluctantly agreed. “So I sit down at the piano, I open up my classical music -- it was probably Bach or Beethoven or something -- and I play my little heart out. After I finish playing, there's dead silence. And finally, one of the adults says, “Uh, okay, boy, that was great, but now play some real music.” They basically could not relate to classical music at all; they wanted to hear some blues or R&B because that's the environment that I grew up in,” Bryant said.
Bryant always knew he wanted a career in music. However, he pursued a law degree and an MBA because he believed that understanding the music business from a legal/business perspective would be essential to building his artistic career and ensure that he could protect himself and his art. At Harvard, he majored in sociology and minored in music, with an eye towards law and business school. When not studying, he spent his time playing keyboards and accompanying singers at off-campus nightclubs alongside professional musicians and fellow Harvard students, in the process adding other musical genres to his musical repertoire, not just classical music.
Fresh out of law and business school, Bryant started working in the music division of a major L.A. law firm, becoming, along with another Harvard grad, the first Black attorneys to work there. However, looking back on his pursuit of a J.D. and an M.B.A. and his time as a lawyer first “learning the business”, Bryant called his actions “total overkill”. He emphasized that it is much more important for artists to simply surround themselves with a knowledgeable team, including a lawyer, that the artist trusts and can rely on.
He says he never intended to be a lawyer for anyone other than himself, but nowadays Bryant utilizes his knowledge of the law to help advocate for other artists through California Lawyers for the Arts (CLA), a statewide nonprofit organization founded in 1974 that provides legal referrals, education and other services to artists. Bryant has been on CLA’s board of directors for more than twenty years. He emphasized the importance of empowering artists, and highlighted the organization’s ability to provide exceptional but otherwise expensive education and legal referral services more cheaply through grants and donations. “I've been on the board of CLA for as long as I have because its mission aligns exactly with my mission and my goal, not only for myself, but mainly for everyone else, for all other creative people. I want to empower and educate other creative people so that they can do their art, which enhances, entertains and inspires all of our lives,” Bryant said.
PocketWatch, the contemporary melodic jazz group which he founded when he went to UCLA, exclusively plays Bryant’s compositions, which are rhapsodic pieces that combine classical music and jazz elements. Bryant enjoys the teamwork and the act of striving toward a common goal that interacting with the members of his group provides. The name derives from Bryant’s love for wearing pocket watches.
While Bryant has found success as a solo musician, playing gigs in venues large and small on both coasts, the most rewarding experiences he has had, he says, come from volunteering to play piano for patients at the UCLA Medical Center, which he did weekly for many years. Patients would often come up to him during and after performances crying or offering their personal stories around the music he had played. Why? His answer is simple: “Music is healing”. In one instance, a woman screamed and ran up to him during a performance. The song he was playing was the same one that played during her wedding, and with her husband being in the hospital at that time, Bryant’s rendition had made her emotional.
Bryant also reflected on how COVID has affected his artistic practice. Even though he noted that many people have been going “stir-crazy” in quarantine, he says he hasn’t been as affected as others because he actually prefers working alone. Indeed, he simply continues to “woodshed”, a musician’s term for isolating yourself to practice and focus on your music. However, he has been unable to perform live gigs and promote his music as much as he’d like to, and he dearly misses performing live and interacting with audiences.
Bryant has released eleven CDs, many critically acclaimed, which include classical music, his own compositions, and even reimagined musical covers of other artists. His twelfth CD, “Besotted,” will be released in the near future. On it, he covers, among other songs, “California Girls” by Katy Perry, her pop hit which he reimagines first as a classical piece followed by segments of swing jazz and gospel. He is currently working on a CD devoted to Black classical composers who have been overlooked throughout history. The CD will include works by, among others, Blind Tom, a slave who was the first Black American classical composer. You can find more about Bryant's work at www.gerrybryant.com.