Viola Smith, who played a giant 12-piece drum kit and was billed as the ‘fastest drummer girl in the world’ – and who wrote a widely read essay during WWII, arguing for the big bands hiring female musicians in place of male those who had been enlisted – died Oct. 21 at her home in Costa Mesa, Calif. She was 107 years old.
His nephew Dennis has confirmed his death.
Ms. Smith, originally from a small town in Wisconsin, grew up playing in a jazz band with her seven sisters. His entrepreneur father designed the group, the Schmitz Sisters Orchestra, and they have performed at state fairs and toured the vaudeville circuit. After most of her sisters left the group, Ms. Smith launched another all-female group, the Coquettes, which achieved modest national fame in the late 1930s.
Ms. Smith became the first female jazz drummer star. She performed at President Harry S. Truman’s Inauguration Gala and worked with Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb. Her showcase tune was a jazzy arabesque called “Snake Charmer”, in which she showed off her virtuosity in a flashy solo.
When people called her the “female Gene Krupa” she corrected them: Krupa, she said, was the male Viola Smith.
As the ranks of the major male-dominated groups thinned during the war, Ms Smith ran an op-ed in DownBeat Magazine titled “Give Girl Musicians a Break!” Urging orchestras to hire the talented female musicians eager to fill the seats. absent players. .
“Why not let the girls play in the big groups?” she wrote. “In these times of national emergency, many star instrumentalists of large groups are being recruited. Instead of replacing them with what may be mediocre talent, why not let some of the country’s great girl musicians take their place?
“There are a lot of girl trumpeters, girl saxophonists and girl drummers who can handle the long tours and one night stands,” she continued. “The idea that girls can only play legitimately is now a worn myth.”
Despite Ms Smith’s passionate argument, the big groups ignored her calls for inclusion.
Viola Clara Schmitz was born in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin, on November 29, 1912. Her father, Nicholas, ran a tavern and dance hall and professionally played the cornet. His mother, Louise (Steffes) Schmitz, was a housewife. She grew up in a musical family with nine siblings and attended a rural school.
No immediate family member survives.
When Ms Smith was 13, her father assigned her the drums in the family orchestra, in part because all other instruments were reserved. The Schmitz Sisters Orchestra has toured extensively and previously participated in a radio battle with an all-male big band, performing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.
Ms Smith’s sisters gradually left the group to raise families or pursue other occupations, and with her remaining bandmate, Mildred, she formed a new all-female ensemble, introduced as Frances Carroll (the singer) and the Coquettes, which appeared on the cover. from Billboard magazine and starred in a musical short by Warner Bros. Mildred eventually got married as well, and Mrs. Smith became the last sister standing.
The bright lights of New York City and the hot jazz flowing from the nightclubs on 52nd Street called Mrs. Smith, and she walked towards the big city with her drumsticks.
Opportunities abounded for her in New York. She studied timpani at the Juilliard School and performed with snare virtuoso Billy Gladstone at Radio City Music Hall. A young Frank Sinatra chatted with her one night in a cuphouse. She found a studio in Midtown, where she ended up living for 70 years.
She joined Phil Spitalny’s big band Hour of Charm and remained with the group for over a decade, appearing with them in the Abbott and Costello comedy “Here Come the Co-eds”. Ms Smith has also made several appearances on Ed Sullivan’s popular variety show and signed endorsement deals with Ludwig Drums and the Zildjian cymbal company.
In the 1950s, the era of the big band was drawing to a close. A few years after performing on Broadway as a member of the Kit Kat Band in the original production of “Cabaret” in 1966, she retired. She spent the next few years getting good at bridge and enjoying the wonders of a rent-regulated New York apartment.
When Ms Smith found out much later that she was being hailed as a battery pioneer, the news surprised her.
“It’s amazing to me what I see on the internet now,” she told Tom Tom, a drum magazine, in 2013. “It’s all a big surprise. I am very grateful to have been accepted as a thresher because once there was nothing like it.
In 2012, Ms Smith moved to Southern California, where she lived in a Christian township in Costa Mesa, largely made up of older women known as the Piecemakers. The origins of the group, which operates a country store that sells quilts and homemade crafts, date back to the 1960s.
Earlier this year, writer Emma Starer Gross traveled to Costa Mesa to interview Ms Smith for The LAnd Magazine. Reflecting on its longevity, Ms Smith said: “Maybe it’s the drums that kept me alive, or the wine, or going to the casino.”
The article described a trip Ms Smith had taken a few years earlier to a Guitar Center with Piecemaker friends to purchase musical equipment. A young woman helped them, paying little attention to the little centenarian. In fact, Tom Tom magazine had recently published an article about Mrs. Smith, and this same problem was on the counter of the store.
When the young employee started flipping through the magazine and one of Ms Smith’s friends casually mentioned the article, she quickly became a star.
“Are you Viola Smith?” she says. “Every thresher knows who you are.”