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Clora Bryant, barrier-breaking jazz trumpeter, dies at 92

Trumpet player Clora Bryant in 1954. (Loomis Dean/LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Clora Bryant, who overcame sexist attitudes and outright hostility to earn a place on the bandstand alongside such musical stars as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and came to be regarded as one of the finest female trumpeters in jazz, died Aug. 25 at a Los Angeles hospital. She was 92.

The cause was a heart attack, her son Darrin Milton said.

When Ms. Bryant launched her career in the 1940s, virtually the only high-profile women in jazz were singers and pianists. Outside of novelty acts like the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, which she joined in her youth, it was especially unusual for a woman to play the trumpet, which was considered a “man’s instrument.”

“If I was a piano player or just a singer, I would have no problem,” Ms. Bryant later told the Los Angeles Times. “But when you start putting that iron to your mouth, you run into problems.”

With talent, persistence and a solid technique, she forced her way onto the male-dominated bandstand, setting an example for younger women in jazz.

Ms. Bryant arrived in Los Angeles from Texas in 1945, when the bebop innovations launched by Gillespie and Parker — a trumpeter and alto saxophonist, respectively — were taking hold in jazz.

Too young to enter the nightclubs that lined Central Avenue in Los Angeles, Ms. Bryant stood outside, trumpet in hand, captivated by the new sound. She followed the musicians to after-hours jam sessions, where she sharpened her skills, often as the only woman in the room.

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“At first I’d hear the musicians say, ‘She plays like a woman,’ ” she told the Times. “But after a while, they said I played like a man — whatever that means.”

Critic Don Heckman, writing in JazzTimes magazine in 2007, called her “the world’s best-known female jazz trumpeter,” and she was featured in several books and films, including Judy Chaikin’s 2014 documentary “The Girls in the Band.” Chaikin called her “a true original” in an email. “Perhaps her greatest contribution was to encourage and pave the way for the current generation of great young female jazz artists.”

Except for two years in New York in the 1950s, Ms. Bryant made Los Angeles her base and came to be recognized as one of the city’s outstanding trumpeters — or as she preferred, a “trumpetiste.” She persevered through derision, unwanted sexual advances and a male-dominated musician’s union.

“Those male trumpet players guard those positions like a bulldog on a bone,” she told NPR in 1993.

She led small combos and played alongside dozens of leading performers, including singer Billie Holiday, drummer Max Roach, pianist Hampton Hawes and saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray. She was appearing at a club in Hermosa Beach, Calif., in the early 1950s, with Parker in the audience.

“He came in there and went up to the bandstand and asked if he could borrow a tenor [saxophone],” Ms. Bryant told the Los Angeles Times in 2002. “I almost wet my pants.”

They played one of Parker’s tunes, “Now’s the Time.”

“Charlie took that tenor and played the rim off of it,” Ms. Bryant recalled decades later. “My knees were weak all while we were playing.”

She is believed to be the only female horn player to have performed with Parker.

In 1957, Ms. Bryant met Gillespie, who became such a close friend that her children called him “Uncle Diz.” The same year, Ms. Bryant made her only recording as a leader, “Gal With a Horn” (1957), which featured both her sizzling trumpet solos and her husky singing voice.

While working in Las Vegas in the 1950s and early 1960s, she did a vocal and trumpet impersonation of Armstrong.

“Well, one night I was up there doing my act, doing Louis, when I heard this sound coming from the casino,” she told JazzTimes. “And here comes Louis with his whole band, all of them. . . . They marched right up onstage and did my whole act, but for real. It was great.”

Clora Larea Bryant was born May 30, 1927, in Denison, Tex. Her father worked at a hardware store, among other jobs, and she was 3 when her mother died. She said her father raised her and two brothers during the Depression on $7 a week.

Ms. Bryant began playing her older brother’s trumpet because her family could not afford to buy another instrument. She received lessons in high school and, by 15, was performing at dances in Texas and Oklahoma.

She was part of an all-female band at what is now Prairie View A&M University in Texas, then moved to Los Angeles and studied at UCLA. She left school to join the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Later, in another all-women band, the Queens of Rhythm, she also played drums — sometimes drumming with one hand and playing trumpet with the other. In the 1950s and 1960s, she worked in groups with singer Billy Williams and with her brother, singer Mel Bryant.

In the 1980s, Ms. Bryant returned to UCLA to complete her degree and, when not performing, taught music and jazz history in high schools and colleges.

Her marriage to musician Joe Stone ended in divorce. They had two children, and she had two sons from a later relationship with musician Leslie Milton. In addition to her four children, survivors include nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

In 1988, inspired by a Moscow performance by Dave Brubeck, Ms. Bryant wrote a letter to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, addressed simply, “Kremlin, Moscow, U.S.S.R.”

“When I was young, my father always said nothing ventured nothing gained,” she wrote, “so I am venturing.”

She was hoping to become “the first lady horn player to be invited to your country to perform, and maybe a friendship will blossom, because it seems that now is the time to try to open our hands and our hearts to each other.”

The Kremlin extended an invitation and, in 1989, Ms. Bryant embarked on a two-week tour of the Soviet Union, joined by two of her sons and a film crew.

“People embraced her with open arms,” her son Darrin Milton, a singer, said in an interview. “They partied with us and treated us like royalty. Mom had a ball.”

She had to quit playing the trumpet in 1996, after heart surgery, but continued to make occasional appearances as a singer and as a lecturer. In 2002, she received the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

“Music has been the thing that has sustained me over the years,” Ms. Bryant said in 2002. “That’s what helped me to see a lot of things through — through people misusing me and abusing me — all of it. Despite all I’ve been through, it’s still worth it. I guess it’s because music is in my skin.”

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