Viola Smith – the fastest girl drummer in the world

Viola Smith, a swing-era musician who was promoted in the 1930s as the ‘fastest girl drummer in the world’ and who championed greater inclusion of women in the almost completely male preserve of big bands, died on October 21st O at her home in Costa Mesa, California. She was aged 107.

With a drum kit featuring 12 drums, including two giant tom-toms placed near her shoulders, Ms. Smith was from 1938 to 1941 the centre piece of the Coquettes, an ‘all-girl’ big band. Her showcase was ‘The Snake Charmer’ a jazzy arabesque with explosions of drumming pyrotechnics.

Ms. Smith belonged to a coterie of female bandleaders who struggled to gain respect for their musicianship.

She had created the Coquettes from the remnants of her Wisconsin family ‘all-female band’ in which she was one of eight musical sisters. She favored crisp and swinging arrangements and was, by several accounts, an egalitarian leader who valued the input of her employees in major business and artistic decisions.

More than a pleasant timekeeper, she was a dervish behind the drums and found it difficult to conduct the group while playing. She turned over baton duties to Frances Carroll, a hip-swiveling singer and dancer.

The band, became known as Frances Carroll & the Coquettes, playing at nightclubs and dance halls and appearing in several short films and on the cover of the entertainment trade magazine Billboard before dissolving.

By that time, Ms. Smith said, she had spent 15 years on the road and had grown exhausted by the demands of travel. She selected Manhattan as her home base and won a summer scholarship to study timpani at the Juilliard School. She also sat in with bands at New York’s Paramount Theatre’ as many able-bodied male drummers of the day were drafted into military service for World War II.

She caused a stir with her 1942 essay in the music trade magazine DownBeat titled ‘Give Girl Musicians a Break!’ in which she called on prominent big-band leaders of the day to hire more women.

Within a year, she was playing under Phil Spitalny, whose all-girl band (heavy on harps and chiffon gowns) offered unadventurous material – but a steady income. The group, where she remained for a dozen years, was featured on Spitalny’s ‘Hour of Charm’ radio show and in two movies, ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ (1942) and the Abbott & Costello comedy’Here Come the Co-Eds’ (1945).

Ms. Smith later drew attention as a member of the ‘Kit Kat Band’ quartet featured in the musical ‘Cabaret’ which ran on Broadway from 1966 to 1969 and then toured nationally.

Ms. Smith retired a few years later but occasionally picked up her drumsticks to play with a California ensemble called the Forever Young Band, which billed itself as ‘America’s Oldest Act of Professional Entertainers.’

Viola Clara Schmitz was born in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin, on November 29th, 1912. Her father, a cornetist, operated a tavern and concert hall in nearby Fond du Lac that boasted of having the first revolving crystal ball north of Chicago.

He insisted on piano training for each of his 10 children. Viola said she began drumming for the family orchestra because ‘with her being the sixth child’ all the other instruments she liked were taken. She was highly motivated to learn. “So long as we practiced, we barely had to do work around the house, she told the ‘Women of Rock Oral History Project’.

By the 1920s, the enterprising patriarch had formed an all-girl dance band with the Schmitz daughters, billed as the Schmitz Sisters Orchestra (later the Smith Sisters Orchestra). She described her parents in glowing terms, recalling a tightknit Catholic family that traveled by luxurious Pierce-Arrow.

They were in demand for weddings and state fairs and played on the radio as far away as Chicago, once engaging in a musical battle over the airwaves with an all-male band.  The band dwindled as some of the sisters left to marry or enter other occupations; one sister died. Besides Viola, the only remaining sister by 1938 was Mildred, who played sax, clarinet and violin. They rechristened themselves the Coquettes and gathered other musicians to form a new group.

Ms. Smith said Woody Herman tried to recruit her, but only as a novelty act pitted against another drummer. Yet in her later DownBeat essay, she spoke of Herman as a rare ‘progressive’ in the field whose 1941 hiring trumpeter Billie Rogers was a milestone.

All girl  bands such as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm  peaked in the early 1940s and rapidly faded from the scene as men returned from war.

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