Jesse Ryan: Celebrating Calypso Music as a Vital Part of Black History through Saxophone

By Stephen Weir

Jesse Ryan

Jesse Ryan, the Grandson of the Calypso legend, the late Mighty Bomber (Clifton Ryan), is prone to saying that “Calypso History is Black History!”  So now that it is February, and in the spirit of the late great Trinidadian Calypso singer and composer, Happy Calypso Month!

Ryan, an up-and-coming Etobicoke Jazz saxophonist, has reached back into his Trinidadian roots for two Calypso musical performing this month. He will be performing at Caribbean songbook this week at Halifax’s Immigration Museum as part of Nova Scotia’s Black History Month celebrations. He also is performing the songs of the Mighty Bomber on February 19th in Toronto.

Saxophonist Jesse Ryan, pianist Eddie Bullen and pannist Garrett Burgess are celebrating their Caribbean roots with Halifax fans with a performance of classics from Ryan’s Caribbean songbook. They are paying homage to some of their musical heroes and highlighting the connections between jazz and Afro-Caribbean traditions. Kitchener, Clive Zanda, Nat King Cole, Sonny Rollins, the Mighty Bomber and his mentor The Mighty Spoiler, they plan to cover all the bases.

“Of course growing up in Belmont, (Trinidad) I was exposed to my grandfather’s music,” he told the Caribbean Camera. “But I fell in love with Jazz at the age of 16. I did learn the close relationship that exists between Jazz and Calypso (in the Caribbean, New York City and New Orleans).  You would hear jazz influenced solos during many of the Calypso performances.”

Jesse Ryan

Torontonians can hear an expanded version of Ryan’s take on the art forms at the 500 seat Holy Blossom Temple (Eglinton Ave W and Bathurst St) on February 17th. At the 7pm performance, his newly formed group, Jesse Ryan and the Kaiso Street Collective, will be premiering their take on the music of the Mighty Bomber. 

“Though the cultural contributions of Caribbean icons to black history have been seen and celebrated in part, their stories are often left out of the global narrative,” said Ryan. “With this project I want to echo an idea that I believe can be found within the collective consciousness of all people, but that is often unspoken.”

Kaiso Street Collective is dedicated to presenting fresh arrangements of music from the golden age of calypso, re-imagined through the lens of modern jazz. In the spirit of honouring calypso’s greatest figures while celebrating the connections between jazz and Afro-Caribbean traditions, the ensemble will feature the music of one calypso master each season and perform the newly commissioned pieces by each ensemble member.

Ryan, his wife and daughter have lived in Toronto for ten years and are looking forward to getting citizenship in a year’s time. Since coming north, he has had a busy career as a student, a performer and a jazz composer. 

It is a full-time life. He is a graduate of Humber’s degree music program and is currently enrolled at the Vermont College of Music’s Master programme. He was nominated for a Jazz Juno for his first album, and in 2020 received the Toronto Arts Foundation’s Emerging Jazz Artist Award.

Mighty Bomber

The Mighty Bomber

When Clifton Ryan passed last January, he was the oldest living Calypsonian (93). He was born in St. George’s Grenada, and lived and worked his last 66-years in T&T. His brother, Samuel, also sang calypso, under the sobriquet King Solomon.

Clifton Ryan began performing in Grenada and won a national title in 1940. His first Trinidad hit was a song he called Gloria (1958). In 1960 he joined The Mighty Sparrow’s Young Brigade calypso tent. He won the 1964 Calypso competition beating out the Mighty Sparrow.