Clora Lee Bryant
Rediscovering the Players Who Kept Things
By: DINITIA SMITH
They called Viola Smith the female Gene Krupa for the way she would hurl her drumstick onto her drum, then jump up in the air and catch it as it bounced. Clora Bryant dazzled them with her trumpet solos. Roz Cron was known for the beautiful, clear tone and distinct phrasing of her alto sax and clarinet.
They were stars of the so-called all-girl bands that played the dance
halls and U.S.O. stages
But when the war ended, their glory faded. As men resumed their musical
careers, the all-girl
"The men felt like: 'Girl musicians, what are they doing on the road? It's a male job,' " Ms. Smith said. "Only God can make a tree," the swing historian George T. Simon wrote in "The Big Bands" (1967, London: Macmillan), "and only men can play good jazz." In many ways, Mr. Simon's has been the prevailing view.
But in a book published last month, "Swing Shift" (Duke University Press), Sherrie Tucker, assistant professor of women's studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, has recaptured the faded history of the all-girl bands.
It is a study of how women negotiated boundaries of gender and race to
play jazz and adapted their dress and music to be accepted. " 'Swing
Shift' is about the construction of what is a jazz musician and what is a
worker," she said, "how women didn't fit the categories and
couldn't be seen as authentic musicians." The book is also about how
race affected the bands.
Jazz's long blue notes, its wild drum crescendos, have always been
thought of as male sounds. The very essence of the form, the jam session,
is based on one-upmanship. The all-girl bands of World War II had to
"project popular forms of femininity at the same time music that was
There were, of course, women's jazz groups before the war, but they were viewed as "a kind of sex show," Ms. Tucker said. And during the war, female groups were not seen as professionals either, but as "patriotic, temporary musical groups to entertain the soldiers."
After the war, the musicians' union pressured bands to hire returning veterans, and many women were funneled into "pink collar" jobs as beauticians, waitresses, teachers. Some played the organ for church choirs. The women who continued in jazz "were often stigmatized by men as gay, as women often are who assume male jobs," Ms. Tucker said. The first problem a woman had was even getting to play a "male" instrument like the trumpet or drums, Ms. Tucker said. They usually got their start in high school bands or because male relatives inspired them. Ms. Smith, the drummer, got her break during the late 1920's and 30's in the Schmitz Sisters, a family orchestra in Wisconsin organized by her father. "Other girl musicians had a tough time getting started," said Ms. Smith, who lives in Manhattan. After the Schmitz Sisters disbanded, she and a sister formed the Coquettes. Ms. Smith, who declined to give her age, was careful to dress femininely in chiffon because, she said, "anybody doing a male job, they would think 'Oh, she must be tough.' "
In 1942, Ms. Smith joined Phil Spitalny's 'Hour of Charm,' the most mainstream and commercially successful of the all-girl bands. The Spitalny sound was orchestral, "feminized" with harps and strings, Ms. Tucker said. The women wore formal gowns and projected an aura of sweetness.
The same year that she joined Spitalny, Ms. Smith published an editorial in Down Beat magazine, "Give Girl Musicians a Break!" Instead of replacing the male musicians who had been drafted with mediocre male talent, "Why not let some of the great girl musicians of the country take their place?"
By the war's end, Ms. Smith had wearied of life on the road, traveling
all night between engagements and then having to look glamorous. Car
accidents were common. Gasoline was rationed and expensive. Big bands in
general were being disbanded, and Americans were staying
Clora Bryant, the jazz trumpeter, got her start at 15 in Denison, Tex., when she borrowed her brother's trumpet. Her father "went in the bedroom and cried because I was so good," she said from Los Angeles.
Ms. Bryant, who is black, was accepted at Oberlin College, but chose Prairie
View College in Texas, a historically black institution, because
of its all-girl band, the Prairie View Coeds. The
Prairie View Coeds were known for improvising. Many, though not
all, black all-girl bands emphasized improvisation, Ms. Tucker said, while
many white groups emphasized arrangements. Poorer bands — black or white
— couldn't afford to have arrangements written for them, and black bands
were often poor. Emphasis on the second and fourth beats was also
associated with blacks, while four even beats and sticking to the melody
were associated with whites. Not surprisingly, conditions were tougher for
black groups. Accommodations were inferior. In the Jim Crow South there
was police surveillance. Blacks couldn't stay in white hotels. Food was
hard to get, and the pay was lower. "As soon as a club was doing
good, they would fire the black group, hire a white group and pay them
more," Ms. Bryant said. "Then the club would fail and they'd
hire another black group." In 1944 Ms. Bryant played the Apollo
Theater in New York, "one of the highlights of my life," she
said. With the war's end, many women married and left the bands. "The
men were still holding onto the jobs, trying to hold us back," Ms.
Bryant said. But "my dad taught me to be aggressive and
During the 80's Ms. Bryant played with jazz greats like
Bill Berry, Johnny Otis and Billy Williams, and Dizzy Gillespie took her
under his wing. In 1989 she performed in Russia at the invitation of
Mikhail S. Gorbachev. In recent years, Ms. Bryant has produced jazz
concerts, including one in
Roz Cron, who played the alto sax and clarinet, got her start
in her high school band in Boston. After graduating, she played with Ada
Leonard's All-American Girl Orchestra, led by a former stripper.
The group was successful, Ms. Tucker writes, because it combined
wholesomeness and glamour. Initially the band had a smooth sound, but it
became jazzier, more swing. At the same time, the costumes became softer,
"as if to ensure the band's overall reception as acceptably
feminine," Ms. Tucker writes. Ms. Cron didn't like wearing evening
gowns. "I felt it categorized us," she said. "I felt all
the men were out there playing in their shirts and ties, just looking very
professional, and we were just prancing around in ruffles. And it was very
uncomfortable." Ms. Cron, who is white, was invited to join a black
group, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Most bands were segregated
by race, but she accepted because "I just wanted to play," she
said. "When I joined the Sweethearts I knew I had come home."
The Sweethearts usually wore jackets, white shirts and skirts. But mostly,
she loved their sound, its "aggressive, strong drive." She
preferred it, she told Ms. Tucker in the book, to the "uptight white
rhythm."The Sweethearts were also somewhat unusual in having an
arranger, Maurice King, an alto sax player who later became a force at
Motown Records. "He was just a genius and wrote beautifully,"
Ms. Cron said. When the group toured the South, she passed for black so
she could go with them. Fraternizing between blacks and whites could lead
to arrest, so Ms. Cron, permed her hair to make it kinky and wore dark
makeup in a process the women called browning down. "I mostly just
stayed in the background," she said.
"I played off and on, taking one step forward and two
backward," she said. "I studied clarinet very diligently when I
went home. I couldn't find any work, and worked in a bank. And then I met
my husband." After a nine-year silence, she resumed playing in a
community orchestra in
In the 1970's, Ms. Cron was a founder of Maiden Voyage, an all-female
jazz band that continues to perform. Such bands enjoyed a resurgence
during the 60's and 70's, partly because of the women's movement, but
their audiences were mostly women. "Most of the time when I see
all-women bands playing, it's in a women's jazz festival," Ms. Tucker
said. "They still get told, 'You're the first woman
"A band of women is never just a band," she said. "It's always exotic."
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