Clora Bryant Blew Doors Open

“Trumpetiste” Clora Bryant embodied the fireball energy of Central Avenue’s jazz scene.

Clora Bryant played jazz with skill and authority: “I didn’t want them to feel like I was a mamby-pamby little tippy-toe female.”
Clora Bryant played jazz with skill and authority: “I didn’t want them to feel like I was a mamby-pamby little tippy-toe female.”
MISHA ERWITT

I couldn’t help but to look, though I knew what I would find. From a high shelf, I pulled down my decades-old edition of Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz. Though Feather was for many years the jazz critic of record for the Los Angeles Times, hometown folks were often afterthoughts. I thumbed to the Bs and scanned. I landed on “Bryan, Mike, guitar; b. Byhalia, Miss., 1916. Self taught” and “Bryant, Raphael (Ray), piano; b. Philadelphia, Pa., 12/24/31.” In the space between the listings for these men, I pressed down hard with my index finger. As expected, I found no entry for Clora Bryant. While her name has often been associated with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm—with whom she played a brief one-week stint in L.A.—her career, in fact, had a much more rich and complex path.

So, then and there, I began to craft a new passage.

Bryant, Clora Larea, trumpet; b. Dennison, Tex., 5/30/27, d. Los Angeles, Calif., 8/25/19

Started on piano at 5 or 6, switched to trumpet at 13 or 14, taking up her older brother’s horn when he was drafted. It changed her life, and with it, she blew open doors…

Refreshingly, a mix of newspapers and music journals didn’t overlook her last summer, acknowledging her passing. Yet I’d begun a similar routine while skimming pieces that lingered on anecdotes about the “surprise” of a woman playing the trumpet or retold stories about musicians who praised her for “sounding like a man.” I wanted to reorganize these articles to focus on her fearlessness, her cleverness, her spirit—her playing, not her gender.

“I wouldn’t have that stigma on me.… When you play the trumpet, you had to be a man,” she told jazz historian Steven Isoardi in 1990 during one of multiple interviews for an oral history project later excerpted in the compendium Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles. And while she dubbed herself a “trumpetiste,” she defined the role with skill and authority: “I didn’t want them to feel like I was a mamby-pamby little tippy-toe female.”

As a woman writing about jazz, I’ve experienced variations on this. There were afternoons when I would arrive backstage pre-soundcheck, reporter’s notebook in hand, and inevitably someone from the venue or the crew would inquire, “Oh, you must be the singer?”

Within the constellations of that particular universe, that was all you could be—if you accepted that. There were too few of us—women operating in unexpected roles. This is why Bryant’s stories of jazz life dazzled on the page and in the anecdotes of friends with whom she shared the fantastic details of her life. These tales centered on her mad affair with music and her deep love of Los Angeles, the city that made her dream come true. She wasn’t the girlfriend in tow; she was doing the job, in the glow of the spotlight. “That’s where I found out who Clora was and what Clora wanted to be,” she told Isoardi. “Central Avenue was [big]. I knew it the minute I walked onto the avenue.… There was an aura. There was a feeling.”

Bryant possessed something indispensable—both for jazz and for life: she knew precisely when and how to confidently leap in. She picked up a trumpet though there wasn’t a mirror role model. She gave up scholarships to Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Bennett College to travel up and down the East Coast with an “all-girl” ensemble while attending Prairie View University. She boasted about climbing onstage, grabbing Dizzy Gillespie’s horn, and just letting loose. She accompanied saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Don Wilkerson, friends of hers, to an infamous anything-goes bacchanal at artist Jirayr Zorthian’s Altadena ranch featuring Charlie Parker on the bandstand. (“I didn’t take my clothes off. But Don did.”) She wrote a letter to Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev, hoping to become “the first lady horn player” invited to perform in Russia; the suggestion inspired a formal state invitation. And though she would refer to herself as naive or sheltered, she made herself at home in the lively network of clubs—among them Club Alabam, the Downbeat, Cafe Intime, and Jack’s Basket Room—that lined Central Avenue at its apex.

The reframing that Bryant herself did in her stories—focusing on the adventures, the woodshedding, the achievements—was also necessary, because, it seems, she didn’t want to linger on what didn’t happen. “Music outweighs the bad part of me not having things. I never had a bicycle when I was a little girl. I never had roller skates…there are so many things I never had, you know, but I didn’t really miss them,” she recalls in Central Avenue Sounds.

Journalist and filmmaker Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn concurs: “She knew the barriers, but I don’t think she cared about them. She just kept going. It wasn’t out of naivete. She had confidence in her craft. She radiated joy. She was a fireball of optimism. Even after she had her heart attack [in 1996] and couldn’t play her trumpet, she was focused on music. She was still performing. Singing with her band. Going to concerts. Supporting other artists. Always spreading the word of jazz.” Bryant’s enthusiasm was contagious, so much so that meeting her on assignment for a newspaper article on the history of Central Avenue changed the course of Littlejohn’s own life. The writer went on to adopt a new storytelling platform, filmmaking, and is at work on the documentary …but can she play?, which showcases often-sidelined female jazz musicians—like Bryant—past and present.

This was Bryant’s hope: to inspire. She knew the power of captivation. She’d taken to music early, listening on a crystal set with one of her brothers in the evenings, sharing the earphones. She used her imagination to see Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy, Duke Ellington, and the Basie band. But it was Cat Anderson, Ellington’s trumpeter, who caught her ear—or as she put it, made her “wet my pants!”

Bryant’s time at university, touring with the Prairie View Co-eds and playing big stages like the Apollo, would be interrupted by her father’s decision to move the family from Texas to Los Angeles (her mother, Eulela, died when she was two). He charmed her with descriptions of palm trees, oranges, and perfect weather. An unflagging supporter of her dreams, he seemed to have a premonition: “He always told us he was going to bring us to California so that we could be discovered.”

They crossed into the city, in 1945, via Los Angeles’s elegant and teeming Union Station, as part of the Great Migration. Through the train windows, the Bryants had had a firsthand view of the multitudes of uniformed enlisted men and military vehicles moving across the country—another migration, one that would aid Bryant in finding work as a musician on bandstands in the big city. With the men gone, there were chairs and traveling opportunities opening up.

She enrolled at UCLA, but her real lessons began after she got off the U Line streetcar on Central Avenue. “It was a hothouse,” says Isoardi when we sit down for a chat about Bryant. In no time, he says, “she knew all the clubs and hung out in them. Got to know everyone. From day one, she had this drive.” And just as crucially, he underscores, “she had this perspective,” about the music but also about the world she was now a part of. It was as broad as it was detailed. “She didn’t miss anything.”

As her father promised, L.A. brimmed with potential. Bryant wasn’t “the only one” on the scene there, says Isoardi. She would join trombonist Melba Liston and alto saxophonist Vi Redd and would get to know the influential music teacher Alma Hightower. Bryant married, had children, divorced, but kept music at the forefront of it all. “She had an inner sense about who she was,” says Isoardi. “And in music, she was self-defining.” She went where she was pulled—for work or pure curiosity, crafting her own style and signature solos.

As the Central Avenue clubs began to shutter, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Bryant would grab her horn and hop into her car for gigs scattered across the L.A. Basin: The Central Avenue scene itself had drifted over to Western Avenue, then out to Crenshaw. To pick up “singles” work, she’d sometimes make long treks to Glendale, despite the fact that it was a notorious sundown town and thus dangerous for African American musicians. There, at jam sessions or dates, she’d find herself at the center of a different mix—with Poison Gardner (Al Capone’s piano player) or R&B honker Big Jay McNeely—and, once more, she’d jockey for a place, then leap.

“Clora was a transition figure in many ways,” says Matthew Duersten, a journalist who is working on a book about L.A. jazz during the years following the Watts Rebellion and up to the early 1970s. She had one foot planted firmly in the city’s jazz heyday, but also, “she was there as the scene began to atomize.” Bryant brought the feeling of Central Avenue with her to each gig, jam session, party, and conversation. “You would see Clora around at gigs all over the place. She’d sit right in the first row and shout, ‘Blow! Blow! Blow!’ She was always there encouraging, fully engaging with the musicians,” Duersten remembers. “That mile-and-a-half stretch consolidated so much talent.” Bryant brought that same energy and camaraderie with her wherever she went.

If the later generations couldn’t experience Central Avenue proper, Bryant sought to conjure its magic through her trumpet, her optimism, and her sheer presence. As she would say about life as well as the avenue, “the only way you’re going to learn it is to be a part of it.” For her, from the very beginning, it was more than a street. “It was a spirit. It was your goal. It was my life.… That’s how deep it is with me. It’s me. Central Avenue, to me, is me.”

For my part, I would see Bryant around, mingling, her hair in a sleek upsweep, flashing that money smile that told you you had found the right time, right place. I longed to interview her, to write about her, to sit in her glow, but was never able to secure an assignment to do so. Until now.

Lynell George’s latest book is After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame. She wrote about Charlie Parker and the Central Avenue jazz club Jack’s Basket Room for Alta, Summer 2019.

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