Trailblazing Trumpeter Clora Bryant Dies at 92

Although she recorded only one album as a leader, she was a pioneer for generations of female jazz musicians

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

Clora Bryant, a self-proclaimed “trumpetiste” who blazed a trail for black female jazz musicians over her decades-long career, died August 25 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She was 92 years old.

Her death was announced by her son, Darrin Milton, who said that the cause of death was a heart attack.

Born and raised in Texas, Bryant built her career in Los Angeles, where (except for a two-year stint in New York) she lived for nearly three quarters of a century. She was a cornerstone of that city’s modern jazz scene, which was centered around Central Avenue.

“When I came out here there weren’t any girls playing on Central Avenue in the jam sessions and things like that,” she said in a 2011 oral history interview for the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM). “Hey, I had nerve. … I was the only female that did it.” She worked with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, who mentored her, and Charlie Parker.

Bryant also worked as a touring musician, playing in nightclubs, theaters, and other venues around the country as a member of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and other all-female ensembles, as well as with fellow trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Harry James and vocalist Billy Williams.

While facing down the many sexist obstacles that inevitably appeared throughout her career, Bryant never let them overcome her desire to play music. And she won more and more admirers in the process. “To be a woman playing jazz trumpet you had to be tough,” trumpeter Clark Terry recalled. “Clora was definitely tough and smart as a whip, or else she would not have made it.”

Clora Larea Bryant was born May 30, 1927 in Denison, Texas. Her mother, Eulila, died when Clora was three, leaving her daughter and two sons (Frederick and Melvin) to be raised by their father, Charles, a day laborer.

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Bryant began playing piano as a child; when her brother Fred entered the army in 1942, however, she began playing on the trumpet he left behind (with her father’s encouragement) and joined the high school marching band. Within a year she had earned scholarships to three different schools, opting for the historically black Prairie View A&M University near Houston so that she could play in its all-female jazz band. The Prairie View coeds played in Houston and at spots all over Texas—and even at the Apollo Theater in New York—at a time when all-female jazz bands were gaining currency as men were drafted into the World War II effort.

When her father took a shipyard job in Los Angeles in 1945, Bryant transferred to UCLA, although she didn’t complete her degree because she had discovered the jazz clubs on Central Avenue. (She would return to the university more than 30 years later.) Initially underage, Bryant stood out on the sidewalk listening every night. In 1946 she began working with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm at a club on Central, going to catch bebop musicians such as Howard McGhee and Dexter Gordon when she was done. It was here that she first asserted herself at the jam sessions.

She wowed the Central Avenue hipsters with a powerful trumpet sound that evinced the brashness and celebration of Louis Armstrong, but applied to bebop language and harmonies. It wasn’t just the locals that were impressed; Clifford Brown publicly expressed wonderment one night, and Charlie Parker joined her in a performance of “Now’s the Time” at the Lighthouse on Hermosa Beach.

Bryant’s career took off. She continued working with the Sweethearts of Rhythm; in 1948 she joined another all-female band, the Queens of Swing, and toured again until 1951, eventually playing drums as well as trumpet (at times both at once). She worked with both Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker in Los Angeles before moving to New York from 1953-55. After her return to L.A., she met Dizzy Gillespie through their mutual friend, the trombonist and arranger Melba Liston, and became a protégé. “If you close your eyes, you’ll say it’s a man playing,” Gillespie said of her. “Man, woman, or whatever, if the gal can blow then she can blow.” In 1991, Bryant used her L.A. connections to help Gillespie get honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Bryant recorded an album, Gal with a Horn, in 1957. (It would be her only one.) That same year she found herself working in Las Vegas with James and Armstrong; she also won the attention of Williams, who hired her for his band. They appeared on TV’s The Ed Sullivan Show in 1959.

She continued working with Williams until 1962. She also played and toured through the ’60s and ’70s with another singer, her own brother Mel Bryant; they even briefly had a television program together in Australia. Another high-profile U.S. TV appearance came in 1973, on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Settling down from the road in 1979, Bryant finished her degree at UCLA and did some college teaching of her own. In 1988 she wrote a letter to Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, asking to become the “the first lady horn player to be invited to your country to perform[.]” Gorbachev complied, and the following year, Bryant toured the Soviet Union.

That same year, 1989, Bryant was the subject of a documentary film, Trumpetistically Speaking.

She continued playing until 1996, when a quadruple bypass made it impossible. After the operation, she kept on singing as well as teaching. She also wrote a pair of children’s books. In 2002, she received the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Bryant is survived by a daughter, April Stone; three sons, Charles Stone, Kevin Milton and Darrin Milton; nine grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and a legacy of female jazz instrumentalists, including many that she mentored personally in Los Angeles.

Read a 2007 JazzTimes profile of Clora Bryant.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.