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Monika Herzig Remembers Clora Bryant

The pianist pays tribute to the late "trumpetiste" and female jazz pioneer (5/30/27 – 8/25/19)

Clora Bryant in a 1950s publicity shot
Clora Bryant in a 1950s publicity shot (photo: James J. Kriegsmann)

It was the trumpet section with the hats. That’s what drew me.*

Sitting on her dad’s shoulders, Clora got to peek through the window into the dance halls on hot summer evenings in Denison, Texas. The Great Depression had depleted all resources and she lost her mother at the age of two. But her father loved music and took Clora and her two older brothers to midnight rambles, dances, barbecues, movies, and taught them to cook and clean and take care of each other. He fulfilled Clora’s biggest wish: a pair of tap shoes so she could dance like Shirley Temple. And the soles of the shoes had to be glued back on until they couldn’t be glued anymore.

There are so many things I never had, you know, but I didn’t really miss them, because once I found out about music, that became my friend, my companion.

Clora’s brother left the trumpet at home when he got drafted into service, and she started playing it in her junior year in high school as the family couldn’t afford to buy a different instrument. Her uncle Henry helped her find the fingerings. With so many men in the army, there were plenty of opportunities to play and nobody raising eyebrows about the girl on trumpet. Despite scholarship offers from Oberlin and Bennett College, Clora chose Prairie View near Houston because they had an all-girl swing band. The Prairie View Co-Eds were one of many all-female touring bands—the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the Darlings of Rhythm, the Queens of Swing, the Texas Playgirls, Jean Parks and her All-Girl Band—and Clora ended up performing with a number of them.

When most of the all-female groups were disbanded as their male counterparts returned from the war and reclaimed their place, Dizzy Gillespie took Clora under his wings. During her time in L.A. she backed up Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker before moving to New York City in 1953, gigging and appearing on television variety shows. She spent her life touring, even hosting her own TV show, lecturing about the history of jazz, a truly gifted player but still an underrecognized musician. When she had to put down the trumpet after a 1996 heart attack, she kept singing and teaching. Music was her true calling.

For me she was a trailblazer, an encouragement to dare and follow my dreams and leave my home country on a one-way ticket to pursue a career as a jazz musician. Without her and others like her, I most likely would have decided that a jazz career was something unattainable for girls even though the music was calling me, drawing me in. She modeled how to be a wife, mother, bandleader, touring musician, and teacher, something that none of the male jazz greats could help us learn. Many jazz history books might have omitted her, but she empowered generations of female jazz musicians to follow her lead and open new doors.

The guys were giving the girls a hard time during the ’70s and ’80s.

And despite that you did not give up your dream and your music. Even after a debilitating heart surgery you kept singing and dancing and leading bands because the music drew you in, made you happy. You raised your kids on the bandstand, dealt with the jealous wives and girlfriends, adjusted the performance gowns for your pregnant body—only lessons a role model like you can teach us. The jazz history narrative of the great-man lineage does not include the lessons that our rising number of young girls discovering the expressive freedom of jazz needs. You lived those lessons for us. We are forever grateful.

*All quotes from Central Sounds Oral History Project, 1990

Read the JazzTimes obituary for Clora Bryant.

Originally Published