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Get to Know Greg Bryant: Bassist, Broadcaster, and the New Host of Jazz After Hours

Sara Bill

Greg Bryant is a longtime pillar of the jazz scene in Nashville, as a bassist, a bandleader and a broadcaster. That last role, which goes back to his early teenage years, has now brought him to WBGO, as the new host of Jazz After Hours.

I met Greg last week, just hours before his first official shift on 88.3 FM and wbgo.org. (As always, you can stream our shows live or via the WBGO archive, which goes back two weeks.)

He has since made himself at home on the air, and on the scene. When I sent over a few questions by email, he was gracious enough to respond right away.  

Please join me in welcoming Greg Bryant to WBGO — and to the Newark and greater New York City jazz community!

You’ve been spinning jazz on the air since age 14. Have you always known this was your calling?

I think so. I was the unicorn kid that asked his parents to go to the record store as well as the toy store whenever we went shopping. I would make mixtapes (on cassette) for my friends, trying to convert them to this new world of sound that I was discovering. It made me feel great to share the music. It was even better when someone came back to me and was as amazed or as enthusiastic as I was about what I shared with them. When I started getting a few listener calls after I got my first radio show, or if found out through conversation that someone was a listener and they loved the music I played, it made me feel like I was spreading something good. There’s a unique satisfaction in helping the music to spread, and I haven’t quite felt that anywhere else. 

What are a few of the albums that made an early impression on you?

That is a tricky question, and I’m almost sure I’ll leave something out. Here are a few that were seriously impactful, which I had checked out intensely before the age of 12. They aren’t listed in any particular order:  

Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage

Cannonball Adderley, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!

Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Bird and Diz

Thelonious Monk, Monk’s Dream

Miles Davis, Bitches Brew

Jimmy Smith, Midnight Special

Weather Report, Night Passage

Your first Jazz After Hours shift featured a great mix — starting out with Larry Young (https://youtu.be/YZ7YnPY9Rao" target="_blank">playing Thelonious Monk), then Cassandra Wilson (https://youtu.be/ogS39t-rCpg" target="_blank">singing Bob Dylan), followed by Weather Report (a https://youtu.be/ERHFktj_gLo" target="_blank">Wayne Shorter tune). How would you characterize your approach, as far as balancing different styles and eras?

I think that I’m initially drawn to things that have a strong pulse, regardless of the era. I can hear and want to share with a listener that the drummers on the cuts you mentioned (Elvin Jones, Herlin Riley along with Alex Acuna and Manolo Badrena) have different expressions but come from the same ethos rhythmically. It’s also fun to think about and listen to how melodies have evolved over time in this music. As that is the case, I believe that those three compositions you mention have very strong and memorable melodic fragments throughout the performances. So, sometimes the common thread is just beneath the surface.

Nashville is your hometown, and it’s been your home base as a broadcaster. How would you characterize its jazz scene? When I did some reporting there a few years back, I was inspired by the folks I met.

That is great to hear. It’s possible that you were sensing the different kind of resilience that it takes to push forward as an improviser in Nashville. Historically, there were many key musicians such as saxophonist Hank Crawford, trumpeter Louis Smith and bassist Ben Tucker (and even Jimi Hendrix) who got their sound together in Nashville, before heading up to New York and elsewhere to perform as leaders and sidemen. There are some very exceptional improvising musicians on the current scene — including Rod McGaha, Marcus Finnie, Derrek Phillips, Nioshi Jackson, Matt Endahl, David Rodgers, Roland Barber and Andy Reiss — that could live and play anywhere, on any stage, that now call Nashville their home. As of now, there are three regular and consistent forums for players and singers to present their craft before appreciative audiences: The Nashville Jazz Workshop, Tennessee Jazz and Blues Society, and Rudy’s. And, FMRL is an arts collective that is a consistent forum for more avant-garde sounds. The audience for the music is growing, but it’s still being cultivated and developed. However, many of the major festivals that happen there or in surrounding areas still aren't including any improviser-led groups on their schedules. The message seems to be, “You can play in our country, Americana, gospel and indie-rock bands as side persons, but we aren’t making much room for your vision as leaders.” As a working improviser or presenter for improvisational music, it can be frustrating. Nothing will change about those conditions without a serious conversation and action.

You also spent some time in Chicago. I’m guessing that was formative too?

Chicago was great. It was my first chance to live in a community that had a strong generational legacy of composers and players who excelled on the local scene as well as providing a forum for regular visits by touring musicians. Every weekend, I was somewhere listening to live music. I had the chance to hear, experience and sometimes meet players I had internalized on recordings, like The Heath Brothers, Sam Rivers, Greg Osby, Jack DeJohnette, Roy Haynes, Bobby Broom, Harold Mabern, Sonny Fortune, Red Holt, Russell Malone, Benny Green, Reuben Wilson, Jason Moran, Von Freeman and Fred Anderson, among others. 

What are you looking forward to most, as you settle into Newark and the greater New York scene?

I'm happy to have been selected as a contributor to a scene that is the most diverse and concentrated in the world — stylistically, culturally and artistically. I’ve been involved from a distance for several years. It’s a true honor, and I’m happy to begin meeting and working with so many musicians, presenters and fellow conduits for this music in person and now as a member of the community.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.