Clora Bryant, trumpeter and pillar of L.A. jazz scene, dies

NEW YORK — Clora Bryant, a trumpeter who was widely considered one of the finest jazz musicians on the West Coast — but who ran into gender-based limitations on how famous she could become — died Aug. 23 in Los Angeles. She was 92.

Her son Darrin Milton said she died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after suffering a heart attack at home.

A self-described “trumpetiste,” Ms. Bryant came of age in the 1940s, aligning herself with the emerging bebop movement. But she never lost the brawny elocution and gregarious air of a classic big-band player, even as she became a fixture of LA’s modern jazz scene.


Often faced with sexist discrimination, without support from a major record label or agent, Ms. Bryant did not come forth as a band leader until middle age. By that point the jazz mainstream had moved on to fusion, a style she never embraced.

And even when jazz history became a subject of major academic concern in the late 1970s and 1980s, she was rarely celebrated at the level of her male counterparts, who had enjoyed greater support throughout their careers.

But among themselves, those same musicians often recognized her virtuosity, and she played with many of them. Dizzy Gillespie, an inventor of bebop, found himself dazzled upon first hearing her in the mid-1950s, and took to calling her his protégé.

“If you close your eyes, you’ll say it’s a man playing,” Gillespie said in an interview for “Trumpetistically, Clora Bryant,” a documentary directed by Zeinabu Davis. (He apparently intended it as a compliment.) “She has the feeling of the trumpet. The feeling, not just the notes.”

Writing in The Los Angeles Times in 1992, when Ms. Bryant was in her mid-60s, Dick Wagner noted that she retained her beguiling powers. “When Bryant plays the blues, the sound is low, almost guttural, a smoldering fire,” he wrote. “When she plays a fast tune, the sound is piercing — the fire erupts.”


Clora Larea Bryant was born on May 30, 1927, in Denison, Texas, the youngest of three children of Charles and Eulila Bryant. Her father was a day laborer. Her mother was a homemaker who died when Clora was 3, leaving him to raise his children alone on a salary of $7 a week.

Ms. Bryant credited her success as a trumpeter to her father’s tireless support. “Nobody ever told me, ‘You can’t play the trumpet, you’re a girl,’ ” she said in a 2007 interview with JazzTimes magazine. “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 started out on the piano but took up the trumpet after her high school established an orchestra and marching band. Showing preternatural talent, she often woke up at dawn to take private lessons before the school day began.

In 1943 she declined scholarships to the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio and Bennett College in North Carolina to attend Prairie View A&M University — a historically black school outside Houston — because it had an all-female 16-piece jazz band. “When I found out they had an all-girl band there, that’s where I was going,” she said in a wide-ranging six-hour interview with Steven Isoardi for the University of California Los Angeles’s oral history program.


But in 1945, after two years at Prairie View, Ms. Bryant moved with her family to Los Angeles and transferred to UCLA. (Her father had been run out of Texas by a group of white people who accused him of stealing paint.) She immediately found her way to Central Avenue, the bustling nucleus of black life in the city, where jazz clubs abounded.

In 1946 Ms. Bryant joined the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the country’s leading all-female swing ensemble, where she was a featured soloist. (Jazz bands led by women had become popular during World War II, and many of these ensembles continued to thrive for years afterward.)

Soon after, she joined the Queens of Rhythm, another large group. When its drummer left, she learned drums to fill the role. A crowd-pleaser, she sometimes played trumpet with one hand while drumming with the other.

Ms. Bryant married bassist Joe Stone in the late 1940s, and the couple had two children. In one publicity photo with the Queens of Rhythm, she subtly conceals an eight-month pregnancy. She and Stone eventually divorced, and she raised their children as a single parent, continuing to perform all the while.

Ms. Bryant leaves her four children — April and Charles Stone, from her marriage to Stone, and Kevin and Darrin Milton, from her relationship with drummer Leslie Milton — as well as nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Her brothers, Frederick and Melvin, died before her.

She recorded her sole album as a leader, “Gal With a Horn,” for Mode Records in 1957. To satisfy audiences, Ms. Bryant had taken up singing onstage, and the label’s executives demanded — against her wishes — that she sing on the album’s eight tunes. But it is her trumpet solos that stand out: She often leaps out of the gate with a stoutly articulated melody before spiraling into coiled runs, her bold delivery reflecting the influence of Louis Armstrong as much as first-wave bebop pioneers like Gillespie and Fats Navarro.


By the mid-1950s, Ms. Bryant was performing around the country with various groups and accompanying vocalist Billy Williams in his popular Las Vegas revue. They appeared together on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and Ms. Bryant contributed a track to Williams’s album “The Billy Williams Revue.”

In the 1970s and 1980s Ms. Bryant stepped forward more as a leader, fronting a combo she called Swi-Bop. She toured internationally and often performed with her brother Melvin, a singer. In the late 1980s and 1990s, her son Kevin was Swi-Bop’s regular drummer.

In 1988, with tensions easing between the United States and Russia, Ms. Bryant wrote a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, saying she hoped to become “the first lady horn player to be invited to your country to perform.” His cultural ministry invited her to the Soviet Union, where she toured the next year.

Ms. Bryant retired from playing trumpet in the 1990s after suffering a heart attack and undergoing quadruple bypass surgery. She committed herself to preserving and passing on jazz’s legacy, giving lectures at colleges and universities, working with children in grade schools around Los Angeles, and coediting a book on Los Angeles jazz history.


In 2002 the Kennedy Center presented Ms. Bryant with a lifetime achievement award at its Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival. She sang some of her own compositions at the event, flanked by younger musicians.