Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Clora Bryant, the Singing Gal with a Horn

Rarely, if ever, mentioned in histories of jazz, Clora Bryant is one of the few women trumpeters who also sang, although if she were reading this, she would instantly frown at any mention of the question of her gender. As she told Linda Dahl in a 1981 interview that the critic uses as the basis for a profile on Bryant included in her book Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen, "Frankly, I'll be glad when it's just a fact instead of such a novelty that we do have women players. Because it is just a fact, you know. Ever since I started playing, it was treated as a novelty—it's always been that way. I think we do need to really get inside the women's playing, because I am sick of hearing that I 'play good for a woman'." In her playing we can hear hints of some of the influences that she mentions in that interview, including Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers, Harry James, and particularly Dizzy Gillespie, for whom she professed a lifelong admiration. When she sings, her voice can sound pungent and swinging on uptempo numbers and sweet and restrained on ballads, but always with a natural sense of rhythm and improvisation. In that respect, at least to my ears, her singing is noticeably akin to her playing.

Born in Denison, Texas, Bryant showed an interest in music from a very early age, soon learning to play trumpet by borrowing the instrument of an older brother. After playing in her high school marching band, she quickly graduated to touring with all-girl bands like the Sweethearts of Rhythm, among others. Moving to California in 1945 after dropping out of college to pursue a career in jazz, Bryant rubbed elbows with great jazz musicians such as Dexter Gordon, Sonny Criss, Max Roach, Clifford Brown, and even Charlie Parker. Bryant also became a part of the music scene in Las Vegas, where she remembers playing opposite Harry James ("who I idolized") around the time when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and company were shooting the movie Ocean's Eleven there. Throughout her career, she has graced the trumpet sections of many big bands, like those of Billy Williams, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, and Lionel Hampton. "Being a woman," she reflects during her interview with Dahl, "and being a black woman, and playing trumpet—that's three things I consider against me. Now, if I played piano, I don't think sex or race would enter into it. With the wind instruments, though, there's competition, period. No matter what color or what sex, there's a lot of competition in the trumpet section!"

Strangely, in Dahl's interesting profile of Clora Bryant, one of the few sources of information on the singer/trumpeter currently available, no mention is made of Gal with a Horn (VSOP Records, 1995), a 1957 LP that Bryant cut for Mode Records and that constitutes the only entry in her CD discography to date. With a beautiful cover featuring a portrait of Bryant in black and blue, the album is a little too short at only eight tracks, "calculated to present Clora with tunes and setting that approximate her club performance," according to the original liner notes by Joe Quinn. Bryant sings and plays trumpet accompanied by Roger Fleming (piano), Ben Tucker (bass), and Bruz Freeman (drums), this quarter occasionally augmented by Walter Benton (tenor sax) and Normie Faye (trumpet). The program alternates between fast and slow numbers, all of them standards, showcasing the full range of Bryant's singing and playing and leaving ample room for solos.

The album kicks off with a swinging treatment of "Gypsy in My Soul" that allows her to play around with the melody for two full vocal choruses before closing her performance with an inventive, Gillespie-influenced solo. Her trumpet shines on a very relaxed reading of "Makin' Whoopee" graced by a very elegant piano solo by Fleming. This is followed by a lovely rendition of "Man with a Horn"("a natural for any trumpet playing entertainer," says Quinn) that Bryant makes entirely her own both vocally and instrumentally in one of the moodiest performances on the album. "Sweet Georgia Brown" is taken at a bouncy medium tempo that allows time for Bryant's trumpet plus a solo apiece from Benton and Fleming. The most unusual track on the LP is the Latin-flavored arrangement of Vincent Youmans's "Tea for Two" complete with a cha-cha-cha beat; it works because Bryant and everyone else involved are having a good time with it. Two tunes by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart follow: Bryant reimagines the melody of "This Can't Be Love" ably aided by a lengthy piano solo by Fleming and then slows down the tempo for a wistful reading of "Little Girl Blue" that underscores the melancholy of the lyric and is embellished by a very soulful trumpet solo. Bryant again carries the weight of the group on the evergreen "S'posin'," which closes an excellent album that deserves to be better known from a very talented performer who deserves to be more than just a footnote in the history of jazz.

Clora Bryant and her trumpet

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