Swing Shift: "All Girl" Bands of the 1940s



By Sherrie Tucker. Duke University Press, 2000. 424 pages. $29.95.


The year is 1945: Swing is still hot and bebop has just burst onto the scene. Two great saxophone soloists square off in an energetic jam session as they catch each other's riffs and spin out impressive improvised lines. The crowd cheers as one player fingers a complex run and they clap in time as the rhythm speeds into a frenzy.

This isn't the back room of Minton's, the famous jazz bar where players like Lester Young and Charlie Parker showed off their musical chops. This is a meeting between Margaret Backstrom, of the Darlings of Rhythm, and Vi Burnside, of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, who performed with two of the hundreds of all-girl bands that toured America throughout the 1930s and Forties.

Sherrie Tucker, professor of women's studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, reveals in her new book the wealth of musical talent and the prolific performance history of jazz-band women, who are often forgotten by mainstream jazz histories. Hundreds of interviews with surviving band members provide the foundation for this crucial new addition to music scholarship. But, as she points out, the simple insertion of the women bands into jazz history does not tell the whole story.

Questions still linger: Why have these bands remained unheard in the dominant jazz discourse, despite research published in the 1980s by jazz historians Linda Dahl, Antoinette Handy, and Sally Placksin? What were the politics surrounding their performance and their public reception at the time?

The mainstream jazz press of the Thirties and Forties frequently featured the so-called "canaries," the glamorous women singers who fronted all-male bands. But women blowing saxophones and trumpets, or pounding out hot swing beats on the drums, were less commonly noted, or presented as gimmicks and comic spectacles. As Tucker explains, "women musicians were consumed as singers who didn't sing, dancers who didn't dance, cross dressers who performed entertainment understood as masculine in bodies understood as feminine." In other words, gender mattered when you wanted to play your horn.

So, how were these bands important to jazz history? We need only look at the recently published book Jazz: A History of America's Music, co-authored by Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns, which seems to suggest that women's bands were mere sideshows compared to male jazz performers. The single page devoted to women instrumentalists is titled "You'll get through it," ostensibly referring to the trials of the woman performer. Here, the discourse of the suffering female musician appears to validate the continued erasure of her artistic contribution to America's music. Tucker's critique offers space for an alternative: The musicians' narratives engage in a rich social history surrounding their musical performance and innovation. Women's bands entered the public spotlight during World War II. Mainstream bands lost men to the draft while the public's demand for music to soothe and excite a war-driven nation skyrocketed.

The symbol of Rosie the Riveter, the enthusiastic female war worker, led the way for many women into the professional sphere. But Rosie was specifically designated a "swing shift worker," one who would happily give her job to returning soldiers at the end of the war. With Rosie in mind, the audiences tended to see the women on stage as "substitutes, amateurs, and cheerleaders, no matter how well they performed." Rosie's myth obscured the fact that numerous jazz women had been professionals since the 1930s and planned to continue performing after the war.

Tucker illustrates how the white, all-woman band the Hours of Charm epitomized the idea of "feminine jazz" in the American consciousness. Band leader Phil Spitalny can be credited with acclimating a skeptical radio audience to the idea of women band players, but he crafted a lighter style to soften the blow. Adding harp and strings to his band, he sought a "feminine" sound to convey the charm of performing women. This lucrative entertainment tactic ensured a successful show. With the women playing brass instruments in fluffy polka-dot gowns, the performance still met the expectations-and limitations -of an idealized white womanhood.

While the white jazz press promoted Spitalny's all-girl band as the definitive "feminine jazz," black newspapers, such as the Chicago Defender, celebrated the success of many black all-girl bands. The reason why these bands have not made their rightful appearance in jazz history is related to the conflict between different representations of womanhood. Tucker's critical comparison of the jazz press discourse on women is long overdue. The black press described how the band the International Sweethearts of Rhythm cultivated an image of smart, talented "race women," women committed to the "advancement of their people." In the mainstream entertainment world, this strong image challenged comfortable white notions of the black maid, mammy, or Jezebel.

The Chicago Defender heralded the Darlings of Rhythm as "America's all-girl band on the horizon of fame." Not only was it considered one of the "nation's fastest bands" but it was said to have a "celebrity studded" group. When the Darlings of Rhythm played, their sound was spontaneous and powerful, with fast swinging beats. Their hot, innovative style refused the category of "feminine jazz."

As saxophonist Fran Gaddison describes it, they were "busting the notes" as they explored new musical terrain. This leads to one of the few failings of this book-a lack of detailed discussion of musical style. Were the Darlings playing a hot jazz related to bebop? Vi Wilson's suggestion that Darling trumpeter Josephine Boyd jammed with Dizzy Gillespie and "helped him invent bebop" is potentially revolutionary and needs further investigation. As Tucker tells us, the bands engaged in quiet social revolution as well.

Personnel shifts among many all-girl bands frequently resulted in white women joining black women's bands, and in the Jim Crow South, the threat of arrest was a daily reality. White players, who blended in with dark make-up, and lighter-toned black women endured police harassment for crossing the color line. Today the players relate their stories of resistance with post-civil rights pride. As bassist Vi Wilson remembers, "We lived dangerously in those days.Š Believe you me, history will find out musicians were the ones that learned people how to be together."

Music, as an expressive and participatory art form, carries social meanings in deeply grounded ways. Knowing the history of these bands reveals the significance of two women saxophonists jamming on stage. Wilson describes how saxophonists Burnside and Backstrom prepared to perform in front of a "crowd of fellas"-"They'd come shake hands and get on the bandstand, 'Let's blow these fellas down!' "

Gier is a Ph.D. candidate in music and a Women's Studies Graduate Scholar at Duke.



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