Clora Bryant: Gal with a Horn

Clora Bryant only recorded one album, but you can hear her trumpet alongside some of the greatest to ever take the stage: Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and her mentor, Dizzy Gillespie. She was a member of the racially-integrated all-women jazz band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Despite being a trumpeter, she later joined the Black female jazz band the Queens of Swing as their drummer. Queens of Swing became the first women’s jazz group to appear on television. She even became the first female jazz musician to tour the Soviet Union, in 1989, after she took the initiative and wrote a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev pitching the idea.

Bryant was born on May 30, 1927, in Denison, Texas—also the birthplace of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Magnum P.I.’s Higgins, John Hillerman. Her mother died when Clora was only three. She was a choir girl at church, and when her brother left for the military, she picked up the horn he left behind and decided she wanted to learn how to play. Before long, she was part of the high school marching band. When she left to attend Prairie View College, she joined the Prairie View Coeds and went on tour with the band, even playing at New York’s esteemed Apollo Theater in 1944.

In 1945, a group of whites accused her father of stealing paint. The Bryants were run out of town, all the way to Los Angeles, and Clora transferred to UCLA. In L.A., along the city’s jazz epicenter of Central Avenue, she first heard the radical new sounds of bebop. “If I knew there was going to be somebody there,” she remarked about hanging around LA’s jazz clubs, “I’d have my horn with me, because I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to try to learn something.” Fellow trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie heard her play and was so impressed that he took her under his wing, showing her the ropes of the business and playing alongside her. The two developed a friendship that would last a lifetime.

The Central Avenue jazz scene was interested in her gender as much as it was in whether she could play. And man, could she. “Nobody ever told me, ‘You can’t play the trumpet, you’re a girl,’” she told Jazz Times interviewer Don Heckman. “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.”

She became a staple of the west coast scene and often performed with touring artists, including Billie Holiday, as part of the house band at the jazz club Alabam. In 1946, she joined the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a swing band composed entirely of women, and the first to integrate different races. The Sweethearts, formed in 1937, were the ambitious idea of the principal and a group of students at a school for impoverished Black children. After leaving the Sweethearts, she joined the Queens of Rhythm, where she played trumpet and the drums—occasionally at the same time, much to the delight of crowds.

Clora departed the Queens to give birth, and later she joined big band leader Ada Leonard, who had cut her teeth conducting all-male bands and wanted to form an all-women orchestra. Unfortunately, the spirit of integration did not extend to audiences, many of whom demanded that the Black woman (not the term they used) be kicked off the stage and out of the band. She was.

In 1957, she recorded her first and only album, Gal with a Horn, for Mode Records. As if she had anything further to prove beyond being a spectacular trumpet player and drummer, she also took the opportunity of the album to prove she was a great singer—though this was not by choice. The record label insisted upon it. Female artists, the conventional wisdom went, were easier to accept as singers.

Clora may not have wanted to sing on Gal with a Horn, her sole album, but that didn’t stop her from being great. Her vocals bridge a certain gap, somewhere between Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. But of course, the trumpet is what really brings the listener, and naturally she excels. The album’s eight songs are meant to recreate one of her live sets, and they alternate between bouncy and ballad, strutting and soulful. There are some inventive arrangements—she even gives “Tea for Two” a Latinesque cha-cha spin—and even though these are standards, she makes each song her own. Each song packs in solos, both for Clora as well as the rest of the performers. It’s a fantastic collection, and while it’s a shame it’s all there is of Clora, we can be awfully happy with what we got.

She continued to perform and tour throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, often alongside her brother, Melvin, and as the leader of a combo called Swi-Bop. She played on blues singer Linda Hopkin’s 1983 album, How Blue Can You Get? She didn’t let up until 1996, when a heart attack forced her to give up the trumpet. She responded by doubling down as a vocalist—when she wasn’t lecturing at colleges,teaching music to children, or working as an editor on books about jazz history.

Although jazz history focuses with too mypoic a view on male artists, Bryant carved a place in music history for herself. Having cut her teeth in a big band orchestra but fallen in love with bebop after hearing trumpeter Howard McGhee, her style reflects the duality of her influences. Although Bryant chafed at being referred to as a “lady trumpet player,” she also recognized the importance of her role and the limitations society put on women. “I’m sitting here broke as the Ten Commandments,” she told interviewer Irene Davis, “but I’m still rich. With love and friendship and music. And I’m rich in life.” Los Angeles Times columnist Dick Wagner wrote, in 1992, “When Bryant plays the blues, the sound is low, almost guttural, a smoldering fire. When she plays a fast tune, the sound is piercing — the fire erupts.”

In 2002, the Kennedy Center presented Bryant with a lifetime achievement award. She was interviewed for Linda Dahl’s chronicle of women in jazz, Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women. She and the rest of the Sweethearts were profiled in the 2013 documentary, The Girls in the Band, directed by Judy Chaikin, and she’s the subject of Zeinabu Irene Davis’ documentary, Trumpetistically, Clora Bryant (1989). In that documentary, her friend and inspiration Dizzy Gillespie described her playing simply and honestly: “She has the feeling of the trumpet. The feeling, not just the notes.”

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