Had she been a singer, she might have been an American star. Had she been a piano player, record labels might have lined up to sign her.
But Clora Bryant played the trumpet and attention came slowly, when it came it all.
“When you put that iron in your mouth, you run into problems,” Bryant told The Times in a 1998 interview. “The other horn players gave me respect, but the men who ran the clubs considered me a novelty.”
A barrier breaker who stood firm in her resolve to be a respected jazz trumpet player despite the open sexism that shadowed her, Bryant died Aug. 25 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. She was 92.
Life as a jazz trumpeter was an uphill battle, said her son Darrin, who confirmed her death. “It was a man’s world and that made it hard for her. But that only fueled her fire, made her more determined.”
Bryant played the trumpet with such passion and fury that she became a mainstay in the growing jazz scene along Central Avenue in the 1940s. Dizzy Gillespie once told Los Angeles Times jazz critic Leonard Feather that Bryant was the most underrated trumpet player in L.A. And when she played the Riviera in Las Vegas, Louis Armstrong was so impressed that he hustled up his band and joined her onstage.
“We did ‘Basin Street Blues’ together,” she said, smiling at the memory.
But by 1992 she was living on Social Security, staying at a son’s Long Beach apartment and two of her horns were in the pawnshop. Much of her memorabilia — photos of her with Count Basie’s trumpet section, pictures with Duke Ellington, a baby grand piano she composed on — burned in the 1992 riots following the acquittal of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King.
Work was hard to come by.
“A lot of clubs have closed, and there are so many more musicians,” she told The Times. “And how many female horn players do you see working? Zip.”
Bryant was born May 30, 1927, in Denison, Texas, near the Oklahoma border. Her mother died when she was 3 and she and her brothers were raised by their father, a patient man who encouraged his children to think big.
When her older brother was drafted, she found a trumpet in his room that he had never truly learned to play. She wanted to be in the high school marching band, and this would be her instrument.
Charles Bryant warned his daughter she’d likely face resistance.
“But anything you want to do, I’m behind you,” she recalled her father telling her. “You keep playing.”
She was raised a Baptist and taught that anything with a backbeat was likely “the devil’s music,” But even on the North Texas prairie where she grew up, the siren sounds of jazz found her.
“In the daytime and early evening, all you could get on the radio were the white bands,” she recalled. “But late at night, we’d get Chicago and Earl Hines or the Cotton Club in New York and cats like Cab Calloway.”
After turning down a scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio and instead attending Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college outside Houston, Bryant arrived in L.A. and found a home in the jazz clubs along Central Avenue — the Downbeat, the Last Word, Club Alabam and the Dunbar Hotel. Though she jammed with the best, there were always detractors.
“She’s a woman and during that time the guys — Miles Davis, Teddy Edwards, Sonny Criss — were burning,” said veteran drummer Roy Porter. “How the hell is she going to keep up with that category?”
But she did.
She played with Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Scatman Crothers. She won over Gillespie, who became a lifelong fan, was a regular at the Lighthouse and the High Seas in Hermosa Beach and performed with groups such as the Sweethearts of Rhythm and the Sepia Tones. She cut her lone album, “Clora Bryant — Gal With a Horn” in 1957 and later appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”
Inspired by Dave Brubeck’s decision to take his music to Moscow, Bryant wrote a letter directly to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and asked him to use his authority to let her become “the first female horn player to be invited to your country to perform.” In 1988, she arrived in Moscow and played at a jazz festival, and later the city’s marquee jazz club. She was accompanied by a film crew from UCLA, where she — late in life — decided to study music history.
In 2002, Bryant was awarded the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
Two years later, filmmaker Zeinabu Irene Davis, a fellow student at UCLA, released “Trumpetistically Clora Bryant,” a documentary that captures the musician in full force, using her as a metaphor for the racism and gender bias that held back women with ambition.
“I would like them to give me my props,” she told The Times after the film’s release. “Not because I think I’m so great, but because I endured. I stuck with it.”
Bryant is survived by four children, April, Charles, Kevin and Darrin; nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.