Sunday, June 05, 2011

James Arness, Ray Bryant and me

On Saturday, on the same page of the New York Times, appeared obituaries reporting the deaths of James Arness of “Gunsmoke” fame and jazz pianist Ray Bryant.

Arness died last Friday at age 88; Bryant died Thursday at 79.

Both, in their own ways, touched my life.

Arness portrayed the benign, stolid Marshal Matt Dillon on the long running TV Western. We can all be grateful Arness didn't sing. His lanky, lyric-less marshal protected a fragile frontier town inhabited by equally beguiling characters, most notably Chester (played by a gimpy Dennis Weaver), Doc and Miss Kitty.

The series taught justice and virtue and probably shaped me more than a year of days at Keith Country Day School in Rockford, Illinois in the mid-’50s.

I first heard Bryant when he was a young man. At the time, I was only 10 years younger than Bryant himself. The encounter must have been at the Blue Note in New York City when he was in his early 30s and I was in my early 20s training to go into the Peace Corps. Bryant had not yet been discovered by the wider public.

Being riveted to his blues playing, tinged with ringing gospel references, brought a lump to my throat. That night was a musical epiphany.

Hear what I mean HERE.

In an age smitten by Rock ‘n Roll, Bryant’s “Little Susie” became one of the few jazz pieces to climb the charts. Its success gave hope that new generations, including my own, would feel the gospel roots at the heart of the blues.

James Arness and Ray Bryant. How very different and yet how very similar they were in the values they represented and nurtured. In my mind, they conveyed depth, purity and honesty in their art. I would never have thought of them together in life as I now do in their deaths.

How honored and graced I was to live during their time here.

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