The first piano player who observed prodigious talent in Bobby Floyd was his mother. At the age of 2, he walked over to the old upright in the family's Marion, Ohio, home and began picking out melodies. A short time later his parents discovered he had perfect pitch, and by 5, Floyd was taking piano lessons.
"My mom played piano at our church, and when I was 6, I took over," says Floyd, who plays with the Eastman Jazz Lab Band on Tuesday. "I played what we called congregational songs. People would get up and before they gave their testimony, they would sing an old song like 'I'm So Glad Jesus Lifted Me' or 'Victory, Victory Shall Be Mine.' I played strictly by ear and I remember thinking, 'This is pretty easy.'"
But Gospel wasn't the only music in Floyd's life. His father, a factory worker, loved jazz. Once he recognized his son's prowess, he started bringing home records by pianists like Ahmad Jamal, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, and Erroll Garner.
"Erroll Garner was my absolute favorite so I would sit at the piano and try to mimic everything he played," Floyd says.
Then, when he was 12 years old, a dream came true: The Marion Concert Association brought his piano hero to his hometown. "We got seats right close to the front, and that was one of my biggest inspirations, seeing Erroll Garner live," Floyd says. "After the concert they took me backstage and introduced me to him. I sat down and played the piano for him and he loved the way I played. I'll never forget that."
By the time Floyd reached high school, he had taken classical lessons so he could play just about anything. He became the unofficial school pianist, doing everything from backing choirs to soloing with the jazz band.
When it came time for college, he headed to nearby Ohio State University in Columbus. There were jazz bands but no jazz major, so Floyd studied music education. But by then, the stage was calling. He left college and hit the road with touring bands.
One of the first groups Floyd travelled with was a quintet led by trumpeter Jeff Tyzik. He'd met Tyzik (who would later become Principal Pops Conductor for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra) through a sax-playing friend who had worked with Gap Mangione. Floyd has fond memories of Rochester in the early 1980's when he often stayed at Tyzik's home.
Floyd and the sax player soon after took off for California to check out the West Coast scene. First stop was a jam session at Marla's Memory Lane in Los Angeles, a club owned by Marla Gibbs, the jazz-loving actor best known for her role as Florence Johnston on "The Jeffersons."
"The guy who played piano in the house band, James Polk, let me sit in and he loved the way I played," says Floyd. "It turned out he was Ray Charles's music director. The following year he got sick. He called and told me Ray Charles needs a piano player, and if I want to come out, I could take his place.
"I didn't audition — I was just hired on the spot. The day I got there, Ray Charles had a gig that evening. They gave me a book about as thick as a New York City telephone book. It had all of his sheet music in it. They put me on the spot and I passed the test."
But why would Charles, a great pianist himself, need a piano player?
"It was a big band," Floyd says, "and he never had an opening act. We'd play two or three songs before he came out. I'm on piano at that point. The announcer announces 'Ray Charles!' I get up from the piano. He comes and sits at the piano, and I move over to the organ."
Although he never got too close to Charles on a personal level, the experience was invaluable.
"I learned to be soulful and listen a lot and try to make the music work," Floyd says. "They called him the genius of soul and he was truly that. I remember when he sang and when he played his solos, he would do it the same way every night and that kind of surprised me because he had it down to a routine, note for note, rhythmically the same way every night.
"But it sounded so fresh — it sounded like a new idea he'd just come up with. It sounded great every night. That was something I picked up: make it sound fresh."
It wasn't long before Floyd was sitting in for another great pianist, Count Basie. The Count Basie Orchestra, which had continued touring after Basie's death in 1984, needed a formidable player to occupy Basie's chair at the piano.
"It was pretty amazing, a little bit challenging," Floyd says. "He was known for space, so that the music could breathe. I kind of play that way myself. He was also known for introductions and endings so I had to pick up on that. The band lets you play the way you play but always in reference to how Count Basie played."
If playing for Ray Charles and occupying Count Basie's chair are not enough, Floyd was also hired as organist for another keyboard legend, Dr. John.
"The ironic thing with me is they all played piano," says Floyd. "I just happened to be picked up by other piano players."
When you hear him play, it's easy to understand why.
"I try to say something and make my music like a conversation," Floyd says. "I try to play phrases that are all related so that it tells a story. My thing is not to play fast all the time. I'm a very soulful player; I'm all about feel. I want people to feel what I play. My number one goal is I want to have a good time and hopefully people have a good time also."