Drummer Jimmy Ryan passed away Wednesday morning. He had suffered a heart attack on Monday, while on a hike with his wife Rory in a wilderness area near Monterey. Rory administered CPR and kept him alive until a medical team was able to hike in to them and carry him out to a hospital, but two days later he left us.
Jimmy was much more than just a jazz musician, of course, though his work and joy in the music was very obviously at the core of his life — and what led him to Rory. They met at Bird & Beckett on one of Jimmy’s gigs and married not long after. When asked, Jimmy put his identity as a devoutly religious Christian in the forefront. For years and with great consistency, he practiced his faith working in prisons and undoubtedly in countless other ways. He was also the proud father of several children, many of whom are extraordinarily talented musicians.
But at Bird & Beckett, we knew him best as a joyful drummer with a long, great history in the music and a real dedication to it. He learned his trade in Los Angeles in the 1950s, and hit the San Francisco scene (by way of a short stint in Monterey) in 1960. Along the way, Jimmy played alongside such influential musicians as Putter Smith, Vince Wallace, Kent Glenn and Bishop Norman Williams, putting in significant time in the early 1960s at legendary San Francisco clubs including Jimbo’s Bop City and Ronnie’s Soulville in the Fillmore and the Jazz Workshop in North Beach. In a more recent era, after a decade or more off the scene, Jimmy restarted his career in the music when he subbed in for another drummer at the Gathering Caffè on Grant Avenue in North Beach, where alto player Bishop Norman Williams and pianist B.J. Papa were schooling a new generation of San Francisco jazz players, including Jimmy’s son, Joel, a fine trumpet player.
Jimmy first began playing at Bird & Beckett in about 2002, when singer Dorothy Lefkovits brought in a trio led by guitarist Henry Irvin for what became a regular monthly Sunday date. While on the gig, Jimmy noted a flyer advertising tenor player Chuck Peterson’s trio, which had just begun its long-running Friday “jazz in the bookshop” series. He had known and played with Chuck in an earlier phase of his career, and soon became the drummer on Chuck’s weekly bookstore dates alone with bassist Don Prell and guitarist Scott Foster. The Friday series continues to this day, having never skipped a single date since its inception, and among the core players only Jimmy has passed on.
Along the way, the Friday quartet split into component parts, such that each of the players took one of the Fridays and built their own monthly dates. Jimmy’s Bird & Beckett Bebop Band became the regular attraction at the bookshop on the second Friday of each month, and has typically been a quintet and sometimes a sextet, often featuring singer Dorothy Lefkovits and most recently comprising the rhythm section and two to three horn players. The band’s core personnel includes Henry Hung, trumpet; Stu Pilorz, trombone; Joe Cohen, sax; Don Alberts, piano; Bishu Chatterjee and Aaron Cohn, sharing the bass position; and Jimmy on drums. Bassist Charles Thomas and sax player Stephen Norfleet had significant runs with this band as well, and Jimmy’s son Joel was often heard on trumpet with the band. A fine set of photographs of Jimmy with his band can be found at this link: http://www.baytaper.com/2008/12/18/jimmy-ryan-friends-live-at-bird-beckett/
He is missed! Jimmy’s Bird & Beckett Bebop Band, of which he was justifiably proud, will perform as scheduled this Friday, July 10th, from 5:30 to 8:00 pm at Bird & Beckett, with drummer Ron Marabuto sitting in for Jimmy. A month later, on his August 14th date, the band will reconvene to complete their tribute to this wonderful man and vital jazz musician.