Clora Bryant

Today I’m learning about the great trumpetiste, Clora Bryant. She is a wonderful musician (she just turned 91 years young!) originally from Denison, TX, but who worked in LA and New York among other places. In his book, “The World of Jazz Trumpet…” Scotty Barnhart calls her “the grand dame of jazz trumpet” and writes “Bryant… possessed all the necessary tools of being a professional jazz musician – flawless technique, a personal sound, daring, continuity of ideas, and inherent optimism that allows for endless creativity.” [1]

She says she originally started playing the trumpet because her brother played, but he left his horn at home when he joined the army. So she picked it up and taught herself “scales and everything” because she was “determined to get in the marching band.” She says “My dad wanted me to play the harp, but I knew the trumpet was it.” So, her father took her to the dance halls where the likes of Duke, Basie, and Lunceford were playing and stood outside the window with her on his shoulders so she could hear the music. [2]

She was offered scholarships to attend Oberlin and Bennett but chose to go to Prairie View College in Houston because they had an all-girl orchestra she could join. So, she played with the Prairie View Co-Eds in Texas for a few years before transferring to UCLA when her father moved to California. She spent time working with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and the Darlings of Rhythm and doubled on drums for the “Queens of Swing.” She was one of the first women of color to appear on television along with Ginger Smock and company and she was the first woman horn player to tour the Soviet Union.

Hearing Dizzy Gillespie for the first time was a turning point in her life and he would eventually become her good friend and mentor. Don Heckman recounts her story from an interview in 2007: “I was playing a gig up in Caldwell, Idaho,” she says. “I had a shortwave radio and I heard this radio station from San Francisco. The deejay played Diz’s ‘Things to Come’ and sat there with my mouth open, trying to find one, the first beat in the bar. And when I told Dizzy about it later, he said, ‘Well, Clora, a lot of people couldn’t find one.’ And I wasn’t used to that. The music just came crashing out. It just blew me away!”

Bryant had a deep devotion to the music and her instrument and was one of the few women to frequent the jam session with the be-bop “heavies.” In fact, she was the only woman to jam on stage with Charlie Parker. Again from her interview with Heckman:

‘It was a Sunday afternoon, and it was always wild at the beach on a Sunday,’ recalls Bryant. They were trying to get Charlie 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 like [she beats off a fast tempo] and everybody got really swinging.

‘When we finished it, the piano player played the old Basie lick on the end. So Charlie said, ‘Hey, how about some ‘Tickle Toes’? I said, ‘Yeah, ‘Tickle Toes!?’ And Charlie counted it off like [beats off a much faster tempo], and he was flying. So when I started playing, I tried to double up the tempo like he was doing. And when we finished, he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me in the back. ‘Clora,’ he said. ‘You know I love you and I love the way you play. But don’t try to double up like that when you can’t do it!’ And then he gave me a big fat hug. But I never tried it anymore. That was my lesson right there. Stick to what you can do. And know what you can do. [3]

It is refreshing to hear her discuss the feel of the music community at that time: “A lot of the good musicians were still around, and there was a different kind of feeling among musicians. They don’t have it now. They tried to help you. You’d woodshed together, and you’d sit down and listen to records. Like Lee Morgan, when he was with Dizzy, he and a lot of the guys, we’d hang out together. They’d come over to my house, I’d fix breakfast, we’d sit up and listen to Dizzy records or Clifford Brown records, and we’d analyze things, what he’s doing here, man, you know. We were listening. It takes talent to listen.” [2] I’d argue that there are still elements of that community alive today and am grateful to have benefitted from the mentorship of my community as well.

In 1957, she put out her one and only solo record, “Gal With a Horn.” Her playing and singing are filled with life and joy, not to mention virtuosity. Listen for yourself:

She says “Nobody ever told me, ‘You can’t play the trumpet, you’re a girl.’ Not when I got started in high school and not when I came out to L.A. My father told me, ‘It’s going to be a challenge, but if you’re going to do it, I’m behind you all the way.’ And he was.” [3] Clora Bryant is a vivacious woman, full of moxie and positivity and music and I’m so grateful to learn about her.

Clora Bryant

(Re)Sources

[1] Scotty Barnhart. The world of jazz trumpet: a comprehensive history & practical philosophy. (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 2005).

[2] Sally Placksin. American Women in Jazz 1900 to the Present. (New York: Seaview Books, 1982).

[3] Heckman, Don. “Clora Bryant: Trumpetiste Extraordinaire.” (Jazz Times. May 1, 2007. https://jazztimes.com/departments/overdue-ovation/clora-bryant-trumpetiste-extraordinaire/).

Dahl, Linda. Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Sherrie Tucker, Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).

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