While I was recuperating from my own heart problems late in August a good friends who I became acquainted with over the telephone a number of years ago, passed away of a heart attack in Los Angeles, CA on August 23.
Clora Bryant was born in Denison in 1927 and went on to become a famous jazz trumpeter. At the time of her death I was unable to write a column about Clora, but now I am better and cannot let her death pass without remembering Denison’s own famous trumpetiste.
My husband subscribes to a special magazine called “The Week” and its latest issue reminded me of the fame Clora reached describing her playing as it dazzled Dizzy Gillespie in the 1950s.
I first became acquainted with Clora in 2002 when she was included in “The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz” by Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler. Their book contains just about anything anyone would want to know about Jazz and as I thumbed through a copy I found Clora listed along with Margarite Bradshaw, Helen Cole, Elizabeth Thomas Smith and Alice Marie Jones Grubb, also from Denison. They also were honored at Prairie View A&M University during the 2002 Founders’ Day and Honors Recognition Convocation there.
These five women were graduates of Terrell High School in Denison during the days of segregation in early 1942. They were among the 10 surviving members of the all-girl orchestra, the Prairie View Co-Eds, who traveled from Texas to New York, playing at dance halls, military bases, stage shows and best of all at the Apollo Theater. They served as goodwill ambassadors for the school and were one of the first African American College Women’s Bands during World War II. After completing their education at Prairie View, all went on to make names for themselves in their chosen career field.
Clora headed to Los Angeles and traveled all over the world playing the trumpet as a sit-in with the country’s most famous bands. She was honored in May 2002 at the Kennedy Center as the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Women of the year, an honor she described as “awesome.” She was the first woman jazz player to go to Russia when Gorbachev was in power.
In Denison she played at the old Tropical Gardens, Denison nightspot of the 1940s with the Brooks Brothers and later with Conrad Johnson.
Clora grew up listening to the good big bands her father, Charles Bryant loved including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, Lionel Hampton, Harry James and others. Now she has been listed in the book right up there with these greats.
Her mother died when she was three and she and her two brothers, Fred and Mel were raised by their dad. His love of jazz and blues was passed to his children.
When her oldest brother, Fred, was drafted into the Army, he left his trumpet behind and Clora was able to learn to play in her junior year at Terrell. After attending Prairie View, she and her dad moved to Los Angeles in 1945 for her to be “discovered.” She transferred to UCLA and became active in the Central Avenue jazz scene and recorded her first album, “Gal with a Horn.” In 1957.
She played Las Vegas in the 1960s and had a role in the only movie of her career, “Pepe,” where she played the only female in the big orchestra behind Sammy Davis Jr.
In 2002 Clara was honored by the Denison Alumni Association as a Distinguished Alumni, but unfortunately she was ill and not able to make the trip to accept the honor. Her close school friend, Marguerite Bradshaw stepped in and accepted the award for her.
According to the book, Clara did a little teaching herself, music at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, CA, and jazz history at UCLA, &USC, Santa Monica College and El Camino College.
She was always emphatic in making it known that she had a wonderful father, Charles Bryant, who gave her an appreciation for the music that led to a career that took her to places she never imagined and earned high honors for her outstanding talent.
Clara toured until the 1990s when a heart attack forced her to give up the horn.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at email@example.com.