Take Five with Bryan S. Wright article @ All About Jazz

Take Five With…


Sign in to view read count

Meet Bryan S. Wright

Bryan S. Wright is a pianist and Grammy-nominated musicologist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Since 2003, he has been the Executive Producer of Rivermont Records, a label dedicated to preserving and promoting ragtime and early jazz styles through reissues of historic recordings alongside new recordings by today’s most celebrated ragtime and early jazz musicians. He has been Artist in Residence for the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation and currently serves as the Artistic Director for the organization’s annual Scott Joplin Festival. Bryan has performed and lectured on ragtime across the United States and abroad, with notable appearances at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York, the West Coast Ragtime Festival in Sacramento, California, and major ragtime and jazz festivals in Argentina and Japan. He has released two solo albums (Syncopated Musings and Breakin’ Notes) in addition to collaborative albums with Brian Holland, Danny Coots, and Martin Spitznagel. Currently, Bryan teaches in the Music Department of the University of Pittsburgh.


piano, violin

Teachers and/or influences?

As a toddler, I was given a battery-operated record player, which quickly became my favorite toy and also my first “teacher” and musical influence. While other kids in my preschool toted around toy trucks, dolls, or action figures, I always had a fistful of 45s. In addition to the usual kiddie records, I remember especially liking hand-me-down discs from neighbors and relatives by the likes of

Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney

bass electric

” data-original-title=”” title=””>Paul McCartney and Wings and Brewer and Shipley. The record-collecting bug bit me hard at that early age—a habit I haven’t been able to shake since! As a 4-year-old, I asked my parents to enroll me in piano lessons. I studied classical piano through high school with a local teacher, Sandra Horwege, then on through college at William and Mary with Christine Niehaus. Along the way, my musical tastes took a sharp turn into the realm of ragtime, early jazz, and “vintage pop.” The first time I heard the cornet of Bix Beiderbecke, I was hooked. His tone, rhythmic variety, and melodic inventiveness have fascinated me since high school; I count his records foremost among my musical influences to this day. My experiences learning and playing a wide variety of music as an undergraduate music major (ranging from Appalachian fiddle lessons with Mike Seeger to studies of Middle Eastern music with Anne Rasmussen) led me to pursue a graduate degree in musicology, and I completed my PhD at the University of Pittsburgh in 2016.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when…

I vividly remember attending a community talent show at age 4 where—among other acts—I heard someone playing a piano selection from Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words.” I was mesmerized, and I knew at that moment that I wanted to become a musician too. At the end of the show, I asked my parents for piano lessons. I’m sure they thought my interest was a phase that would pass, but the memory of that performance stuck with me, and I kept asking. Eventually they relented and rented a piano, and I started lessons.

Your sound and approach to music.

I play a lot of ragtime (both old and newly-composed) and early styles of jazz piano. It can be easy to fall into the trap of playing this type of music in a mechanical way, prioritizing the notes and rhythms at the expense of expression or a sense of drama. With careful attention to dynamics, articulation, phrasing, and voice shaping (while still maintaining a driving rhythm), I think many rags and early jazz pieces can be quite satisfying to play and to hear—and convey more depth and “heart” than most people credit them with having. I strive always to engage and surprise audiences by emphasizing the lyrical and dynamic aspects of this music that often get buried by flashy embellishments.

Your teaching approach

Aside from refining technique (something I still work on myself), I encourage students to think about and articulate (in words) why a particular piece of music or a particular performance of a piece moves them. Of course, the magic of music is that it is capable of conveying complex emotions and feelings more fluently than words, but I still encourage students to look and listen for the specific features of a piece of music that them and try to articulate the” how” and “why” so they can more effective performers or listeners. Why is a crescendo or ritardando appropriate here? Or why not? Why should a particular chord be played staccato rather than left to ring out? These questions do not necessarily have right and wrong answers, but I hope that students can play or listen with purpose so that music becomes even more meaningful.

Your dream band

I am fortunate: my dream band actually exists! The Chicago Cellar Boys (of—where else—Chicago!) play a variety of jazz and popular music of the 1920s and ’30s with all the youthful vim and vigor of the best musicians of that era, intermixing classics with forgotten, long-overlooked gems and even some exquisitely crafted originals. With Andy Schumm (cornet and reeds), John Otto (reeds), Natalie Scharf (reeds), Dave Bock (trombone and tube), Jimmy Barrett (banjo), and Paul Asaro (piano and vocals), the group is already a ” dream assemblage” of many of my favorite musicians on their respective instruments, and with their combined enthusiasm and unmatched skill, they manage to make nearly 100-year-old jazz styles sound amazingly fresh. Check them out at the Honky Tonk BBQ next time you’re in Chicago, or look for them online (YouTube, Spotify, etc.). Hearing them is an unforgettable experience.

Road story: Your best or worst experience

In 2014 and 2015, I was invited to play for a jazz festival in Buenos Aires and at the American Embassy there. Getting there was one of the most miserable travel experiences I have had; my flight to Buenos Aires was diverted to Uruguay shortly

before landing because of a major storm that closed the airport, leading to a multi-day ordeal culminating with an 80-mile-per-hour wild ride in a jitney bus, holding on for dear life as we whipped through the streets of Montevideo at 2 AM Once we got to Buenos Aires, however, it quickly became one of the best experiences of my musical life. The festival organizers and our hosts were very gracious, and the audiences that turned out were the most enthusiastic I have ever encountered. All of the concerts were sold out, with people packed into the aisles of the theater and a line stretching out the door and around the block. I played piano solos by

Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin

1868 – 1917


Leave a Comment