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I woke today trying to fathom a Nyack without George Bryant.  George Bernard Bryant, Jr. passed away at home last evening at the age of 77. George was one of those parts of life that you consider a “constant”, he was so faithfully, quietly, graciously THERE for so long, it seemed to many that he always WOULD be there.  This musician extraordinaire touched so many lives all over our area both as musician and passionate advocate for peace, mutual understanding, fellowship and ecumenism.

For those who don’t know, “Mr. Bryant” as he was frequently known, was the Organist, Liturgical Music Director, and Choir Director of Saint Ann’s in Nyack from 1966 to his retirement in 2014, as well as Organist for Temple Beth Torah in Upper Nyack from 1978 to 2014.  His reputation as both instrumentalist and instructor was not only national, but international, and yet this quiet self-effacing man chose to never leave his beloved Nyack for more than a few weeks at a time despite numerous offers over the course of his long musical career.

He was born June 17th, 1939 to Margaret Beirne Bryant and George Bernard Bryant, Sr and grew up on First Avenue around the corner from St. Ann’s.  George was a musical prodigy and despite his shyness, his talent was apparent at Nyack High School and the church, and his facility with keyboards, both piano and pipe organ, brought him to study at the prestigious Julliard School of Music.  In 1962, at the age of ONLY 22 (just barely, his birthday was only weeks away) George Bernard Bryant, Jr. received his Masters of Science degree from Julliard. Please note, a Master’s Degree at 22, and also note, not a Masters of Arts, but of SCIENCE a more difficult degree in Music.  He was truly both a passionate artist AND a brilliant technician.  He would go on to play recitals here and abroad but his heart and soul and life were in his little village “up the river” from Julliard.  George became musical director at St. Ann’s church a few years later, and despite many offers, including invitations to become organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, George stayed put in the house he grew up in on First Avenue, only venturing out of Nyack for the occasional master class, recital performance, international choir tour, or music festival and convention. It seemed he was quite content, first living with his parents, then inheriting the house and living with his dog for many years – though I never could tell if the poor thing was a really big beagle or a less woebegone basset hound…

Along with the two choirs, Catholic and Jewish, George had many private students and many of them would go on to great success in the competitive music world.  He was Vice President of the New York State Association of Music Teachers from 1986 to 2014, on the Board of Directors of the Rockland County Music Teachers from 1962 to his passing, a member of the National Pastoral Musicians, and several time recipient of Rockland Executive Arts Award from the County of Rockland, and in 1997 the George Bryant Organ Scholarship was established in his honor.  He helped found and guide the Rockland County Catholic Choir, and worked with many other Rockland Music groups and schools.

George was passionate about helping youth discover the magic of music – and not just classical or sacred music – but music of all kinds, all periods, all ethnicities.  When I joined the St. Ann’s Youth Choir at the age of 16 in 1979, it would be to join a group that sang not only old church dirges, but vibrant jazz, rock, broadway, creole, american spirituals, gospel and more. It was a multiethnic group, and of the teenagers that were members when I joined, George’s “kids” would go on – as I did – to a number of prestigious music schools and programs and follow with professional musical careers.  Alumni of that group inspired by “Mr. Bryant” would record hit albums (imagine a trance-dance track with a house beat and an operatic soprano soaring over the top… yeah, the album “Aria” for any former club kids featured a lead singer who was in St. Ann’s Youth Choir), others, careers in Musical Theater or Cabaret or Jazz, along with Classical Singers and Instrumentalists, and even a Jazz Vocalist who sang at the White House. Others would become Music Teachers themselves, as well as several who are also now Musical Directors at both St. Ann’s and other churches, Musical Therapists and even the head of People to People here in Rockland.

And somehow, we would all always come BACK to this man… for guidance, for practice, for a task master when needed, and a sympathetic ear if that was required. And we’d all do anything for him.  He wasn’t just a superb musician… he was also a superb human being.

Justice, Fellowship, Peace, Understanding, Civil Rights – these all meant so much to George Bryant. He was instrumental in many music programs – whether here in Nyack, or Rockland as a whole, or even in New York City – music programs that fostered interaction and understanding between different religions, different denominations, different races or different ethnicities all in a search for commonalities while celebrating each groups unique gifts and culture. He was extremely involved with the B’Nai B’rith’s “Brotherhood Thru Music” concerts back in the ’80s and the ’90s, where groups from different churches, synagogues and mosques as well as cultural groups, got together and entertained each other in rousing concerts of wildly different musical styles all celebrating our common humanity and always culminating with several pieces where all the groups performed as one whole.  Any fight for Human Dignity and Human Rights attracted his attention, and George’s most fervent, if innocent-sounding, wish was that we would all somehow learn not only to get along, but to appreciate and rejoice in our minor differences.

Heck, I learned a good amount of Hebrew during the many occasions where St. Ann’s Choir and Temple Beth Torah’s choir would come together for mixed performance and worship services!  To George Bryant, the “music” only got better as the “orchestra of life” added more and more instruments of all kinds, and voices of all kinds.

George was such an understated and constant part of our community that I think in some ways – completely without malice – his absolute genius got overlooked.  There were many times when I was cantor on the altar at St. Ann’s (especially once I actually became a seasoned performer myself) when George would be playing something and I would look out at the congregation wondering “since they hear him all the time, do they realize just HOW good he is? And how NOT normal a musician of this quality is in a suburban Catholic Church?”  The man could play a Fantasy on any given church hymn at the drop of a hat (a Fantasy is taking the basic melody and enhancing and embellishing it, especially with extremely fast and precise keyboard fingering).  He could look at a piece of sheet music he’d never seen before from any given Broadway Show and play every note on the page his first time through flawlessly and I’d even watched in awe when during one of the aforementioned “Brotherhood Thru Music” concerts, a Baptist Choir scheduled to close the show was late and was still robing when all the other performers had finished, so George Bryant, without sheet music, from memory only, proceeded to play several Chopin Nocturnes for the audience… and play them with delicacy, gentleness and sensitivity that could only be described as astonishing.

George Bernard Bryant - Facebook Photo

George Bernard Bryant – Facebook Photo

For many of us, Nyack’s George Bernard Bryant, Jr. was teacher, mentor, coach, therapist, motivator, occasional drill sergeant, and very much FRIEND.

He will be missed.

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There was a time from 1860 ’till the Depression of 1893 when Nyack was actually a Hudson Valley center of manufacturing, her top products being:

1. Bicycles – yes, the village was plagued with an over-abundance of two-wheeled menaces even back then! The Nyack Historical Society’s renowned Stockmeyer collection of photographs shows the Rockland Bicycle Shop – you can see the collection at the Nyack Library.

photo from the Nyack Library Historical Collection

2. Pianos – some of which can still be found in local homes – I found one in a recent listing Donna Cox of Rand Realty had on Tallman Avenue, and the instrument still had remarkable tone and resonance. The factory was located just downhill of what is now The Runcible Spoon, going east on High Avenue. The building was recently converted for use as luxury residential loft condos.

3. Steamyachts & Sloops – Even after the Depression of 1893 left many of Nyack’s factories empty and shuttered – many for good – shipbuilding was still a major industry in Nyack and would remain so through the 20th Century’s Depression. An April 5th, 1896 New York Times article boasts about three steam-yachts being constructed in Nyack for three New York City society millionaires – one of them was touted for having “twin screws” (two propeller shafts driven by steam turbine engines) which in 1896 was QUITE an accomplishment for a private vessel – even the Cunard and White Star liners of the era had just all changed over to twin screws. The luxury quotient was quite high coming from the Nyack shipyards – the yachts featured crew accommodations for at least ten crew members as well as Captain and First Mate cabins along with 4 or 5 luxurious staterooms for the owner and friends. Steam baths, heated tubs, mahogany dining saloons trimmed in gold leaf and ivory, silk draperies and upholstery, brass rails and inlaid hardwood & teak decks awaited NYC’s elite in these Nyack-built floating palaces. The most modern safety conveniences – electric searchlights and *gasp* Marconi “wireless devices” (that’s radio to you and me) completed the scene.  Amazingly, the Petersen’s Boat Yard is still in operation, but has long been out of the business of building ships – their last being a number of Liberty Ships and Sub Chasers for the United States Navy in World War II!!

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