It has been a year of sour notes for trumpeter Clora Bryant. Two of her horns are in a pawnshop. Her idol and mentor, Dizzy Gillespie, is ill. And much of her memorabilia, including a treasured piano, went up in flames during the spring riots.
But Bryant, who has played with the legends of jazz, is as lively as her music, and she views these setbacks as temporary. She has overcome adversity all her life, a woman resented for competing in a man’s domain.
“I went into a depression, but I’m coming out of it,” she said recently, referring to the burned mementos that were stored in a garage on 53rd Street when rioting broke out over the verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case.
“I had the baby grand since 1965. I lost the music I wrote for my suite, ‘To Dizzy With Love.’ I had pictures of me with Count Basie’s trumpet section, pictures with Duke (Ellington). It hurt my heart.”
Bryant, staying in her son Darrin Milton’s apartment on Cherry Avenue in Long Beach, moved there last year and has lived in Los Angeles since 1945.
She is 63, with a round, expressive face accented by arching eyebrows. She is known for wearing wigs and hats but as she sat in the apartment, her hair was unadorned and in a ponytail.
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.
She has played with Gillespie, Basie, Ellington, Harry James, Billie Holiday, Scatman Crothers and Charlie Parker, and she was part of the Sweethearts of Rhythm and Hollywood Sepia Tones.
In her current group, she plays “swinging be-bop” with her sons, singer Darrin, 24, and drummer Kevin Milton, 27.
A smiling portrait of Gillespie dominates her son’s living room.
“You see who’s king of the house,” Bryant said.
In a touch of irony, Gillespie paid Bryant her greatest compliment in 1989: “If you close your eyes, it’s a man playing. When you open your eyes, you see that you are wrong. You wouldn’t think a woman would have those inner things about a trumpet.”
From the beginning of her career, Bryant was often put down because she was a woman playing what most men in jazz insist is a man’s instrument.
“And their other thing was to try to get you into bed,” she said. “If I was a piano player or just a singer, I would have no problem. But when you start putting that iron to your mouth, you run into problems. The other horn players gave me respect, but the men who ran the clubs considered me as a novelty. But I never had a man refuse to let me come up on stage.”
She went to jam sessions on Central Avenue in 1945 when she was a teen-ager who had just arrived from Texas. When the other musicians saw her coming into the Downbeat or the Club Alabam, they’d say, “Here comes Clora with her widdle trumpet. It sounded like they were putting me down,” Bryant said. “But I was little. And I was mesmerized.”
Veteran drummer Roy Porter remembers Bryant from those days. “She’s a woman and during that time the guys--Miles Davis, Teddy Edwards, Sonny Criss-- were burnin '. How the hell was she going to keep up with that category? But she hung around and learned, and turned out to be a good trumpet player.”
Music flowed in Bryant’s childhood home in Denison, Tex., the early 1940s sounds coming from the radio and 78 r.p.m. records.
“We always had a record player,” she said. “When we didn’t have a needle, we’d break off a pen and put it in there. It would grind off all that wax, but we could play it like that.
“In the daytime and early evening all you could get on the radio were the white bands. But late at night, we’d get Chicago and Earl Hines or the Cotton Club in New York and cats like Cab Calloway.”
When Bryant’s brother left for the service, she picked up the trumpet he left behind and took lessons.
She joined her high school marching band and went on to college at Prairie View A&M; in Texas because it had an all-girl band. The group traveled in station wagons that were destined, she recalled with a laugh, to break down. “We had these synthetic tires and a chaperon who was about 300 pounds. I was the youngest, so she had me riding with her. Coming into New York in 1944 we had three flats!”
In the 1950s, she worked in Hermosa Beach, at the Lighthouse or the High Seas. “That was a hot tiiime ,” she said. “On the weekend I was working three jobs around the clock.”
In the 1960s she made $400 to $500 a week in the smoke-filled rooms of the big hotels in New York, Miami and New Orleans.
A videotape shows her in a tribute to Louis Armstrong, playing trumpet and imitating the raspy “Satchmo” voice. She perfected the act in Las Vegas. “I was playing in the lounge at the Riviera and Louie was in the big room,” she said. “He marched his band into the lounge, and we did ‘Basin Street Blues’ together.”
Bryant, who is divorced from her second husband (her first husband died), brought her family with her on the road. She would play a set, then go backstage to nurse her babies.
She had steady work until the late 1970s, when she quit traveling to go back to UCLA, which she had first attended in 1945.
The 1980s were far from hot, but in 1988, after writing a letter to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, she and her sons performed in Russia. “They named a club for me over there,” she said.
In recent years, Bryant has found little work. “A lot of clubs have closed, and there are so many more musicians,” said the trumpeter, whose income is limited to Social Security checks. “And how many female horn players do you see working? Zip.”
She learned last week that she will receive the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s 1993 Distinguished Achievement Award in March during a black musicians’ conference.
“I’m overwhelmed,” she said. “It makes me feel like I haven’t been in show business 50 years for nothing.”
Now that she has emerged from her depression, Bryant is eager to get some new gigs.
“Jazz to me is a lifelong quest,” she said, “because you never finish searching for that high you can reach when everything’s clickin’ and the audience is right there with you. I get goose bumps thinking about it.”
Her lips are still in good shape, but she said: “It’s hard to play with false teeth. When they slip, you miss a lot of notes. But on the days when they fit tight, I still feel good about myself.”
As she reminisced about her long, bumpy road and all the fun she’s had, a jazz tune began playing on the radio in the apartment. She snapped her fingers, picked up her trumpet and forgot about her troubles.
“I can be broke as I am now and, if it swings, still be happy,” she said, ready to prove again that she can blow her own horn.