Clora Bryant, 1927–2019
The jazz trumpet virtuoso who was set back by sexism
Clora Bryant should have been one of the most famous jazz trumpeters of the 20th century. Her dexterous, passionate playing dazzled Dizzy Gillespie—an inventor of bebop—who in the 1950s took to calling Bryant his protégée. Louis Armstrong was so impressed by the self-described “trumpetiste” that he once jumped up and jammed with her onstage in Las Vegas. But Bryant was largely shunned by club and record-label owners, who believed the trumpet was a man’s instrument, and she spent most of her career in obscurity. “If I was a piano player or just a singer, I would have no problem,” Bryant once said. “But when you start putting that iron to your mouth, you run into problems.”
Born in Denison, Texas, Bryant was raised a Baptist and “taught that anything with a backbeat was likely ‘the devil’s music,’” said the Los Angeles Times. But she fell in love with the big bands she heard on the radio and picked up her older brother’s trumpet when he was drafted. She attended Prairie View A&M University, which had an all-female 16-piece jazz band, and then headed to Los Angeles. Bryant became a regular at local clubs, backing big-name artists, including Billie Holiday, when they came to town.
She recorded only one album as leader, 1957’s Gal With a Horn, on which label executives insisted—against her wishes—that she sing on all eight tunes, said The New York Times. Bryant toured tirelessly until the 1990s, when a heart attack forced her to give up the horn. In her later years, her only income was Social Security checks. “I’m sitting here broke as the Ten Commandments,” she said, “but I’m still rich. With love and friendship and music.”