by Piotr Michalowski
Solo jazz piano is a quirky art. The instrument is obviously self sufficient, and pianists playing alone have been at the heart of jazz, from Storyville cathouses and Harlem rent parties to Art Tatum and Cecil Taylor. Ray Bryant has made a career by combining the older blues tradition with the harmonies of modern jazz. For many years Bryant and others could count on the one place that catered solely to the solo jazz pianist: the Café des Copains in Toronto. But that establishment is now sadly gone, as is Bradley's in New York. Today, pianists are usually called upon to provide background music at parties or in noisy bars and are expected to provide odious "cocktail piano." These jobs pay the rent, but the habits acquired there sometimes bleed into other performances which is why even some of the best jazz musicians become saccharine and garrulous when offered an opportunity to play straight solo jazz.
The older styles of playing, and the abundance of solo work, required strong left-hand abilities. With the rise of modern jazz combo playing in the 1940s, pianists developed a different ensemble role and limited the role of the left hand to rhythmic jabs of skeletal chords. The pioneer of this style was Bud Powell, but he was a tremendous musician who could play with a full two-fisted style when the situation required it. Powell was an inspiration to all jazz pianists, and his legacy was particularly well received in Detroit, where Barry Harris and younger pianists such as Tommy Flanagan developed their own voices based on his ideas. Flanagan and many others left the Motor City in the 1950s and developed international careers. Detroit may have its problems, but it has never lacked for jazz piano talent, and generations of wonderful players have taken the places of those who moved on.
One of those who chose to stay was Bess Bonnier, who went to school with Flanagan. She has
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