Clora Bryant, Class of 1943, Trumpeter
If you want to know most anything about any jazz-great entertainer, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz by Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler more than likely has the answer. From birth dates to television specials, the book answers most any question you might have on the careers of 3,300 jazz musicians from around the world.
And wouldn’t you know it. As soon as I started thumbing through the book I found a familiar name of a female musician born in Denison.
I didn’t know of trumpeter Clora Bryant until almost two years ago when Clora, Marguerite Bradshaw, Helen Cole, Elizabeth Thomas Smith and Alice Marie Jones Grubb were honored at Prairie View A&M University during the 2002 Founders’ Day and Honors Recognition Convocation there.
These five women, all graduates of Terrell High School in Denison during the days of segregation, all went to Prairie View 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.
The musicians 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 fields.
Marguerite, who has retired and returned to Denison, was assistant principal and principal and did the pilot project for decentralization of New York City Schools in the office of the superintendent in his absence.
Helen Cole had her own band, then completed her major in business and returned to Denison to work at the Citizens National Bank until she retired from Bank One.
Elizabeth Thomas Smith, who lived in New York City, retired as food manager over baking at one of the top New York restaurants. More recently she had her own catering business in New York City.
Alice Grubb now lives in Philadelphia to help her daughter with twins.
Clora, who now lives in Los Angeles, has traveled all over the world and played 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 Woman of the Year, an honor she describes as "awesome." Clora was the first woman jazz player to go to Russia when Gorbachev was in power.
All but Marguerite 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, such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, Lionel Hampton, Harry James and others. Now she’s 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, Clora 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," starring the Mexican matinee idol, Cantinflas. She appeared as the only female in the big orchestra behind Sammy Davis Jr.
She’s received three NEA grants for her compositions and performances and is proud of her more than 46 year friendship with Dizzy Gillespie, whose star on the "Walk of Fame" she initiated with the help of his wife, Lorraine. The star was placed posthumously in 1995.
Most recently Clora was featured in a segment of an NBC series, "Life’s Moments" that aired last fall. She has made a new CD "Trumpetistically Swinging, Here’s the Trumpetiste," and she been editing and publishing her audio-autobiography, "Trumpetistically Speaking, Love Clora Bryant."
Clora was honored in 2002 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 new book, Clora 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.
Clora is 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. – Donna Hunt