Unsung Women of Jazz #9 – Clora Bryant

Clora Bryant

“It was a Sunday afternoon…They were trying to get Charlie [Parker] to play at the club next door, the Lighthouse, but no one could get him to sit in. Then he came over to where I was playing, borrowed a new Selmer tenor from somebody, and said, ‘Well, what do you want to play Clora?’ And I said, ‘Now’s the Time.’ So I set the tempo… and everybody got really swinging.”Clora Bryant recalls playing with Charlie Parker

She has played with Bird, Diz and Satchmo. She is a legend of L.A.’s Central Avenue Jazz Scene. Yet, Clora Bryant is barely known outside of Southern California.

Clora Bryant was a “trumpetiste” (her preferred term) for over half a century. Women trumpet player/leaders are still fairly rare today. In the ’40’s and ’50’s, they were virtually unheard of.  But that didn’t stop Ms. Bryant.

Born in Texas in 1927, Clora Bryant’s originally played the piano and sang.  She did not pick up a trumpet until her junior year in high school, after her brother was drafted and went off to serve in WWII.  She wanted to be in the marching band and the trumpet was her way in.  Clora was a fast learner. So fast that she earned trumpet scholarships to Bennett College and Oberlin, only a year later.  She turned down both scholarships, opting instead to attend Prairie View College in Houston, which was closer to home.

When Clora’s father landed a job in Los Angeles, Clora transferred to UCLA.  It was there that she heard the sound of bebop, coming from the clubs on Central Avenue, the center of African-American life in L.A. at the time.  Clora was drawn to that sound like a moth to a flame. She began sitting in during late night jam sessions, where she played with other West Coast jazz players, like Howard McGhee, Frank Morgan and Teddy Edwards.  She was a good enough player to get invited to sit in when some cats would come from the east, like Bird and Diz.  The bond with Dizzy was so strong that he became Clora’s mentor, starting a friendship that would endure until Dizzy’s death. 

Clora Bryant has always been resourceful. In addition to being a trumpet player and vocalist, she also learned to paly the drums. She was proficient enough on the skins to land a job with the Queens of Swing and tour with them for several years. In the early ’50’s Ms. Bryant returned to playing the trumpet. She backed Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker during that time. She also married and gave birth to her first two children.

In 1957 Clora Bryant recorded and released her first and only album as a leader; …Gal With a Horn, for Mode RecordsIt’s an infectious, mostly uptempo affair, with Clora singing as well as blowing on all eight tracks. She gets solid support from a strong group that includes veteran bassist Ben Tucker and tenor saxophonist Walter Benton.

Ms. Bryant spent most of the remainder of the fifties on the road, playing the hot spots in Chicago, Denver and Vegas.  During the sixties, she teamed with her vocalist brother, Mel, to create a successful song and dance act, even hosting their own TV show in Australia for a while.  Clora made international headlines in 1989, when she accepted then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s invitation to play in U.S.S.R.; becoming the first female jazz musician to do so. 

A 1996 heart attack forced Clora to put down her trumpet, but she barely skipped a beat. She continues to sing and lecture across the country about her rich life experiences and what it was like to be a pioneering woman in jazz.  Within the past decade, Clora Byrant has begun to receive some long overdue recognition.  She was Honored by Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with its 2002 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival Award, in 2002. And in 2007 a long-planned documentary Trumpetisically, Clora Byant,  was released.

As you can see in these clips that were recorded within the last year, Clora Bryant is still going strong at 84.  May she continue to do so for many more years!

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