In Memoriam: Clora Bryant (1927-2019)

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Before she staked her claim on the Central Avenue jazz scene in Los Angeles, trumpeter Clora Bryant was a featured soloist in the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

(Photo: LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries)

Clora Bryant, a fiery trumpet player who broke gender barriers with her horn, swung with the Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, and led her own bands for decades, died Aug. 25 at the age of at 92 in Los Angeles, where she had became a mainstay of the storied Central Avenue jazz scene.

Hailed as a “one-of-a-kind trailblazer, super-swinging, joyful, gifted, creative musical force” by drummer and DIVA Jazz Orchestra leader Sherrie Maricle, who posted a heartfelt Facebook tribute after her death, Bryant inspired countless female jazz players to follow her lead.

“When I came out here, there weren’t any girls playing in jam sessions on Central Avenue,” Bryant recalled in an interview conducted at the 2011 NAMM Show. “Hey, I had nerve! I’d get my horn and just walk up there and start playing. And I was the only female who did that. I had antennae like you wouldn’t believe.”

Before she staked her claim on Central Avenue, Bryant was a featured soloist in the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and other all-female swing ensembles popular in the 1940s. But she really came into her own in the 1950s at Central Avenue hotspots like The Downbeat, Club Alabam and the Dunbar Hotel, where she played with Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, and dazzled Gillespie, who mentored Bryant.

“Dizzy always gave me my props,” Bryant recalled, during a 2010 interview at the Central Avenue Jazz Festival. As Gillespie himself put it in Trumpetistically, Clora Bryant, a documentary by Zainabu Davis: “She has the feeling of the trumpet. The feeling, not just the notes.”

Armed with the trumpet mouthpiece Gillespie gave her, Bryant recorded her first and only album as a leader, 1957’s Gal With A Horn. As Mode Records demanded, Bryant also sang on all the tracks. But it’s the bold bebop voice of her trumpet, which explodes with piercing runs, that established her as a serious player. Still, without an agent or a label contract behind her, Bryant continued to face hurdles as a gal with a horn.

“Those male trumpet players guard those positions like a bulldog on a bone,” Bryant told fellow trumpeter and music historian Susan Fleet in 1993, recalling the boys-club mindset of the 1950s. “We got a tough row to hoe with the trumpet.”

To get more gigs, Bryant started singing more onstage and became adept at emulating Armstrong’s gravelly voice. “And I was a hit, honey,” Bryant said in the award-winning documentary Girls in the Band. “They loved me!”

So did Armstrong, who caught Bryant’s impression of him when they both played Las Vegas in 1960.

“He was in the big room and I was in the lounge, where he’d been catching my act in the back,” Bryant said during her Central Avenue Festival interview. “And one day, here comes Louis with his whole band, coming from the big room, walking through the entire casino and coming up on stage and singing and playing with me!”

Bryant couldn’t have imagined that moment when she was growing up in Denison, Texas, where she and two siblings were raised by their widowed father on a day-laborer’s salary. But the ambition that drove her was forged at an early age. “My dad taught me that if you wanna do something badly enough, you just do it,” Bryant recalled during the NAMM interview. “You gotta have balls, so to speak. I never would have gotten to Russia if I hadn’t said hey, I’m gonna write to Gorbachev and tell him I want to come.”

General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev took her up on the offer, and in 1988, Bryant became the first female horn player to tour the Soviet Union.

When Bryant retired her trumpet on doctor’s orders in the mid-1990s following quadruple bypass surgery, she became passionate about preserving the legacy of jazz as a teacher and historian. She also performed periodically as a dynamic vocalist, sporting her trademark floral crown, and sang several of her own compositions when she received a lifetime achievement award at the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center in 2002.

Among her numerous achievements, Bryant successfully campaigned for Gillespie to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991, and officially was proclaimed a Jazz Legend and Goodwill Ambassador by the Los Angeles City Council in 2018. But perhaps her greatest legacy is the gumption she bequeathed to today’s young female jazz players.

“Clora Bryant was an unforgettable and powerful role model,” said Canadian trumpeter, composer and bandleader Rachel Therrien. “She’s inspired me to push forward as a jazz trumpeter and a bandleader. While I never got the opportunity to meet her personally, I am forever grateful for all her hard work, which opened the path for future generations of women like myself.” DB



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