Today we celebrate African American singer, dancer, choreographer and actress Marie Bryant (1919-1978). Raised in New Orleans, Bryant took dance classes a child, and eventually made her way to Chicago, where her first professional engagement was at the Grand Terrace Cafe in 1934, performing in floor shows with Louis Armstrong and others. Then came New York’s Cotton Club (and a national tour) with Duke Ellington, and performances at the Apollo Theater in 1939. In Ellington’s 1941 revue Jump for Joy, she performed the number “Bli-Bip”, which was made into a short film. Her first movie however had been the 1938 race movie The Duke is Tops, with Lena Horne and others. This was followed by Gang War (1940), Broadway Rhythm (1944), Jammin’ the Blues (1944), When Strangers Marry (1944), Carolina Blues (1945) and a small bit in Ziegfeld Follies (1945). Her Broadway debut was in a music version of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Holiday, directed by Nicholas Ray, with music by Ellington.
Bryant taught dance at Katherine Dunham’s school, and danced in Los Angeles nightclubs, such as the Florentine Gardens (rebranded the Cotton Club). She coached dance and choreographed for the Hollywood studios and TV variety shows, and continued to appear in movies, such as They Live By Night (1948), Wabash Avenue (1950), Fancy Pants (1952), Cross-Up (1954), The Gilded Cage (1955), and Basin Street Revue (1956), where she danced in a Cab Calloway number. In the ’50s she also toured with a show called Harlem Blackbirds, and performed in the West End musical High Spirits. When Pearl Bailey took over the lead in Hello Dolly in the late ’60s, Bryant was her understudy. After this she continued to teach at her own dance studio, and to choreograph live shows in Las Vegas.
To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.