Clora Bryant obituary

American jazz trumpeter and vocalist who performed with Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie

Although highly rated by her male peers, including Dizzy Gillespie, the Los Angeles based jazz trumpeter and vocalist Clora Bryant, who has died aged 92, recorded only twice. Her sole “name” album, Gal With a Horn, was issued in 1957, while a second recording made in 1982 merely featured her as an accompanist to the blues singer Linda Hopkins.

Reflecting on why greater recognition seemed to have been denied her, the saxophonist Teddy Edwards, a frequent bandstand companion, could only say: “You know, she’s as good as any man. She has range and ideas and enough talent to go to the top.”

Bryant always knew that her gender and colour would pose challenges in her desire to be taken seriously as a modern jazz trumpeter. Apart from a period in the house band at Club Alabam on Central Avenue in LA, where she backed Billie Holiday, Bryant, self-proclaimed as a “trumpetiste”, was often seen, sequin-clad, in all-girl combos. It was only in her middle years that she emerged as a regular participant in the best big bands and small groups in LA and beyond.

Hearing her play at the North Sea jazz festival in 1987 with Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham’s Sweet Baby Blues Band and later at festivals in LA, was enough to confirm her status as a star jazz soloist – and to question why her recording opportunities had been so few.

Rather remarkably, Bryant wrote directly to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988 suggesting she might be “the first lady horn player to be invited to your country to perform”. Perhaps even more strikingly, Gorbachev issued an invitation – and with the help of the LA musical community, who funded her travel, she and her sons toured Soviet Russia a year later to great acclaim.

Born in Denison, Texas, Clora was the youngest of three children of Charles Bryant, a day labourer, and his wife, Eulila, who died when Clora was two. She took up the trumpet in high school, excited by the jazz she heard on the radio and much encouraged by her father. “I’m behind you all the way,” he said.

Despite offers from elite music colleges, she opted instead, in 1943, for the historically all-black Prairie View A&M University near Houston as it had an all-female big band, the Prairie View Co-Eds. She toured widely with them, eventually appearing at the Apollo theatre, Harlem, in 1944.

When her father took a job in the LA shipyards in 1945, he moved the family permanently to the city. Once there, Bryant joined the celebrated International Sweethearts of Rhythm big band as a featured soloist but stayed only briefly. Entranced by the all-action scene on Central Avenue, then the centre of black show business in LA, and inspired by beboppers such as the trumpeter Howard McGhee, she impressed everyone with her powerful sound as she sought to measure herself against the best local jazz stars in the Avenue’s wall-to-wall jam sessions. “I’d always have my horn with me. I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to learn something,” she said. Once, famously, it was Charlie Parker who sat in and sagely told her: “Stick to what you can do. And know what you can’t.”

Rather than playing bebop or modern jazz for a living, Bryant was often typecast in all-female units such as the Queens of Rhythm, in which she played trumpet and drums simultaneously.

She was also in the violinist Ginger Smock’s sextet in 1951 when they became the first all-black group to host a regular, although short-lived, TV show. After moving for a while to New York, she joined the Billy Williams Revue in Las Vegas for two years from 1960 and then teamed up with her brother the vocalist Mel Bryant in a song-and-dance act that kept going throughout the 1960s and 70s.

Back in LA from 1979 she formed her own proper jazz group called Swi-Bop, finished her degree at UCLA and worked with Edwards in his sextet while also playing Dixieland with Roger Jamieson’s New Orleanians. In a mixed bag of playing opportunities, she appeared with the Bill Berry and Gerald Wilson big bands and took engagements with the Cheathams, the singer Nellie Lutcher and the R&B pioneer Johnny Otis.

By 1992, the work had dried up – and Bryant was living with her son on social security, in a home damaged during the Rodney King riots. After quadruple heart bypass surgery in 1996, she ceased playing the trumpet – but ever determined, began lecturing on jazz history in local colleges and grade schools.

She often wrote about her jazz experiences, always with an emphasis on the glory days of Central Avenue, and was generous with her time to researchers like me. One project that gave her immense satisfaction was her successful campaign in 1991 to have a star dedicated to Gillespie on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The music writer Leonard Feather called Bryant “one of the unsung heroines of the jazz trumpet”, this neglect partly rectified when she was honoured with the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz award in 2002 at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. She was featured in the 2014 film The Girls in the Band and highlighted in the 1989 documentary Trumpetistically, Clora Bryant.

She is survived by her children, April and Charles, from her marriage to the bassist Joe Stone, which ended in divorce, and Darrin and Kevin, from her relationship with the drummer Leslie Milton.

• Clora Larea Bryant, jazz trumpeter, born 30 May 1927; died 25 August 2019


Peter Vacher

The GuardianTramp

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