Sunday, March 8, 2015

The lady who swings the band...

There was a song once called "The Lady Who Swings the Band", performed by Andy Kirk and His 12 Clouds of Joy. The 'Lady' in question was Mary Lou Williams who played a mean boogie woogie as the band's pianist. She also composed and arranged for some of the biggest names in the business. Her husband was touring with his own band when he got the invitation to join Andy Kirk. She took over the band for their rest of their tour before joining her husband. She was 19 at the time.

Mary Lou Williams as photographed by William Gottlieb

There were many women who played in swing bands, and who led swing bands - of both the "all girl" and "all boy" variety. In the volumes of jazz and swing music history, the ladies had, until recently, been left out, forgotten, and omitted - sometimes on purpose.

Today, March the 8th, 2015, is International Women's Day. And this coming Friday, March 13th, is the birthday of Ina Ray Hutton, who led the 'all girl' Melodears in the 1930's, and an 'all boy' Orchestra during WWII (no easy feat as many of the smaller bands closed down due to an inability to keep their musicians who were being drafted).  Ina Rae was a blonde bombshell who danced around the stage with a shimmy and a sway that I gather was reminiscent of the first black woman known to have led an all male band, Blanche Calloway.

Blanche Calloway
Ms. Calloway was a fan of hot jazz. After touring as a dancer in an all black musical, she settled in the Chicago of 1927 because that's where the music was. She soon recorded two songs (one 78 record) with the billing of "Blanche Calloway and Her Joy Boys" - which included the young Louis Armstrong.  She soon formed her own orchestra using the 'Joy Boys' name. At various times the band included future jazz giants Ben Webster, Cozy Cole, Chick Webb, and Bennie Moten. Ms. Calloway had a wild flamboyant performing style which she taught to her younger brother Cab. Needless to say, being a young black woman in a male dominated profession provided a number of challenges. So did touring the American South, where she was arrested for using a public restroom. One of the musicians who came to her aid was pistol whipped and arrested as well. While they were in jail, someone absconded with the band's money. She sold her yellow Cadillac to raise the funds to get home. At the outbreak of the war, she tried to start another band - this one with women musicians, but bookings were scarce and she retied form the business. In Florida she took up politics, and worked as a disc jockey for a radio station where she spent 20 years as program manager.

Ina Ray Hutton was a singer and dancer who appeared on Broadway in both the George White Scandals and the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1934 she was approached by music publisher Irving Mills and asked to lead an all girl band called the Melodears. They were hugely popular, and appeared in many "soundies" and musical short subjects. Here's a prime example:

The Melodears disbanded in 1939. At the outbreak of the war, Ms. Hutton started an all male orchestra which was also hugely popular. Over the last several years, there has been a great deal of research claiming to prove that Ms. Hutton and her sister June (who replaced Jo Stafford in the Pied Pipers) were of African American descent, and passing for white. One member of the family gave an interview in which she stated that Ms. Hutton's mother had told her that the family was Irish/Scots and Cherokee. Sadly, the was she or wasn't she ruckus has come to overshadow Ms. Hutton's accomplishments - which included a lot of damned good music.

In Mississippi there existed the Piney Woods County Life School, which educated orphans and poor children from their area. The school's founder heard Ina Ray Hutton and the Melodears and decided to create and all girl swing band to help the school raise money. The only band which could be said to be 'girls' came into being as The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. The Sweethearts turned professional and added a few of the top women musicians in the country - including Anna Mae Winburn who had been leading an all male band. The Sweethearts were an integrated band of African Americans, Asians, Caucasians, Latinas, Mexicans, and Indian. They were one of the best swing congregations out there. When they competed in a battle of the bands with Erskine Hawkins, 10,000 listeners declared the Sweethearts the winners. It was not unusual to see some of the top bandleaders of the day listening to them from the wings during performances. Those performances, by the way, took place in mostly African American venues. Touring the South provided extra problems - the lighter skinned women had to use makeup to darken up lest they be arrested for being whites performing on the same stage as blacks. Two of the best arrangers in the business worked for them - and quit in protest when they saw how the women were being treated and found out how badly they were being paid. After they performed on the war era 'for the soldiers' Jubilee radio program, demands for more came pouring in. In 1945, the Sweethearts became the first black women to be presented by the USO as they toured army camps in France and Germany. After the war, the change in musical tastes made making a living even more difficult, and the Sweethearts disbanded. When the ladies tried to retire, they discovered the money withheld for social security had never been paid to Uncle Sam. The band slipped into the obscurity of the footnote. In 1980, Marian McPartland convinced a jazz festival to reunite the Sweethearts. Feminists and musicians took up their cause. A popular documentary on the band premiered in 1986 at the New York Film Festival. The Sweethearts first trumpet, Tiny Davis, and their drummer Ruby Lucas, were the subjects of another documentary, 'Hell Drivin' Women'. Only a couple of sides were ever recorded. What remains are bits of film (often incomplete fragments) and a few radio shows.

Lil Hardin Armstrong
Lil Hardin was a pianist working in Chicago in the 1920's when King Oliver came to town. After hearing her perform, he asked her to sit in with the band. It wasn't long before she became a part of the band. According to her own account, she was, at first unimpressed by a young coronet player who was "too country". She took him under her wing, taught him how to dress and present himself to the public. She ended up being the  pianist, composer, and arranger for many of his early recordings. She also married him, becoming Mrs. Louis Armstrong. After they separated, she formed an 'all girl' orchestra, followed by one with both female and male musicians. She faded from public view, emerging every now and then with a band or as a soloist. She planned to release an autobiography, but decided to shelve work on it lest it embarrass her ex. When Mr. Armstrong died, she was by all accounts devastated. A month later, while performing at a memorial concert, she collapsed and died. Her papers and autobiography disappeared.

Valaida Snow
While all of these ladies deserve to have their stories told (and their music played) I've never understood why Valaida Snow hasn't been the subject of a movie or stage show. Louis Armstrong may have tried to hire Tiny Davis away from the Sweethearts (she chose to stay), but it was Valaida Snow whom he described as the second best jazz trumpet player in the business (after himself).

A multi-instrumentalist singer and dancer, Ms. Snow was performing professionally by the time she was 15. The press loved her, and the audiences loved her. She toured the US, Europe, China, and became the toast of London and Paris. Her good friend Josephine Baker tried to convince her to return to the US as war clouds gathered, but Ms. Snow didn't take the advice. She was arrested as a drug addict (and according to some accounts for being a lesbian) by the Nazis. She may have been a prisoner in a concentration camp. There are stories. Ms. Snow, however, was known for telling stories as flamboyant as her personality. Some researchers claim she was only in a Danish prison and the stories were fabrication. Whatever really happened, she never recovered from the experience. In the 1950's, she began an attempt to regain her career. She was backstage at the Palace Theater when she collapsed and died from a brain hemorrhage.

Valaida Snow and one of her Orchestras
And there was Dolly Dawn and Her Dawn Patrol. Ms. Dawn was a vocalist who joined George Hall's Taft Hotel Orchestra. Hall was a violinist who didn't play swing;  he  led an competent but uninspired band. Once Ms. Dawn joined up, their 6 day a week broadcasts became extremely popular. Ms. Dawn soon had a 'band within the band' set up for recordings, released as ""Dolly Dawn and Her Dawn Patrol". With record sales increasing, Hall saw his opportunity to retire from leading the band and took it, turning the band over to Ms. Dawn in a public ceremony at the Roseland Ballroom. The band gained new energy and spirit, recording under the "Dawn Patrol" moniker. It only lasted a year. The war arrived, the draft took many of the musicians, and Ms,. Dawn set out on a solo singing career. During the post war years, she too faded from public view. A 2 disc reissue of her old recordings in 1975 brought her new attention, there was a new album, and she began to perform occasionally in New York clubs.

My radio show this week featured these ladies and their music. It had been a difficult week; by the time I started the show I was exhausted and that problem I have in which thought can't quite translate into coherent speech came by for a visit. Hopefully, listeners will enjoy the music enough that my verbal stumbling won't be of concern.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amazing ladies and fantastic music. I do recall the Dawn Patrol.