|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.
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.
|Lil Hardin Armstrong|
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|
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.