Women in Jazz, Pt. 2: The Girls From Piney Woods

Karl Ackermann By

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The musicians wanted permission to go backstage and see what boy’s band was back there playing, see how this thing was done. ‘It was pantomime, they got to have a band back there,’ they said. ‘Ain't no girls can play like that.’ —Eddie Durham
In Part 1 of Women in Jazz we looked at the historical position of women in early jazz. Despite their influence in shaping the art, their talent as composers, arrangers, instrumentalists, and band leaders, women have often been token additions; marginalized window dressing in a male-dominated world.

One hundred years after Lil Hardin Armstrong held the ladder for Louis Armstrong, saxophonist Tia Fuller provides a window into how little things have changed for women in jazz. The composer and professor at Berklee College of Music has been a member of Beyoncé Knowles all-female touring band and has recorded with Esperanza Spalding, Dianne Reeves, and Geri Allen. She has released five jazz albums as a leader; the most recent Diamond Cut (Mack Avenue Records, 2018) features Dave Holland, guitarist Adam Rogers, drummers Bill Stewart, Jack DeJohnette, and Terri Lyne Carrington who also produced the album. Diamond Cut was nominated for the 2019 Best Jazz Instrumental Album Grammy in a category that included Fred Hersch, Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, and Wayne Shorter.

On the day of the awards Fuller wrote an opinion piece 2019 Grammy Awards: Why I'm Using My Nomination to Speak Out About Sexism in the World of Jazz, for NBC (www.nbc.com, February 10, 2019). Fuller emphasizes the obvious slights while putting a face on the discrimination and sexism she has personally experienced. The examples are nuanced but they are actions reserved for the "other," the outsider. She talks of suggestions she should "smile more" when performing. It's unlikely anyone would have said that to Miles Davis. Fuller writes about comments made when she's spotted carrying her saxophone case such as "Do you really play that?" Ultimately, Fuller believes that that the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have had a positive halo effect on women in jazz and elsewhere but she knows progress is painfully slow when she writes "Young girls can fly a rocket ship, throw a football and solo on the saxophone—but it is always harder to be what you cannot see."

International Sweethearts of Rhythm

The Swing Era that dominated the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s represented the only time in the history of jazz when the genre and "popular music" were synonymous. But, like all the stylistic periods of jazz, it was relatively short-lived. The music piggy-backed on the earlier dance band music of the 1920s and early 1930s and evolved to reflect the energetic rhythms and blues influences made popular by black territory bands. Like dance bands, swing was heavily reliant on dancehall venues but thanks to the growth and affordability of radio, swing survived the Great Depression and thrived into the post-World War II years.

The rural, south-central Mississippi community of Piney Woods was established on land that had been the Choctaw Nation before their people's forced removal to Oklahoma. Known as an underdeveloped and lawless area, the Piney Woods were sparingly used by sheep and cattle herders but was not well-suited to agriculture. Representatives from Piney Woods voted to secede from the Confederacy in 1861 and launched guerilla-style attacks on the Southern troops. In retribution, the Confederate Army raided subsistence farmers and confiscated livestock, depleting the few resources in the community. The poor region in the poorest state in the U.S. became more impoverished as farmland opened to the north in Mississippi and the small population dwindled further. In 1938, near the end of the depression, the Piney Woods Country Life School opened. Despite the institution's idyllic name, it was an orphanage and school for poor black and white children. The Piney Woods School was an unlikely starting point for the most famous "all-girl" jazz band in jazz history.

Laurence Clifton Jones came from of family of educators and upon graduating from the University of Iowa in 1908 he was offered—but refused—an offer to teach at the prestigious Tuskegee Institute. Dr. Jones had a higher calling. Learning that Rankin County, Mississippi, had an eighty percent illiteracy rate, he started the Piney Woods School with two dollars and three students in a sheep shed on land donated to him by a freed slave. In 1912 Jones and his wife Grace, who had previously founded her own school, were given lumber from a white sawmill owner, food, money and more land from other donors. Grace Jones was a tireless fundraiser and a teacher at Piney Woods. The couple's dedication to educating their students became local legend, so much so that when a white lynch mob attempted to hang Jones (simply because he was black) in 1918, they relented because of his reputation. The famed author and motivational speaker Dale Carnegie reported that the lynch mob actually donated money to the school. The most effective fundraising tool that the school developed was an all-girl jazz orchestra whose performances brought in much-needed donations.

Dr. Jones and Grace Jones had originated several all-girl groups, some vocal and others instrumental. Probably called the Piney Woods School Band at their inception, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were inspired by Jones' affinity for the Ina Ray Hutton's Melodears. Hutton was born Odessa Cowan in 1916, on Chicago's South Side in a predominantly black area. Census records indicate that she was black but she was perceived as being white as evidenced by her nickname, "the Blond Bombshell of Rhythm." Jazz promoter Irving Mills assembled an all-female band—the Melodears—changed Cowan's name and made her the band leader. Though she was only eighteen, she had won great reviews performing on Broadway at fourteen. She led the group through the 1930s touring regularly, appearing in films, and in 1950, on television with own Emmy-winning program. She recorded little, did very few interviews and her name faded into obscurity.

In an all-white Mississippi orphanage, a young girl's race was determined to be black and she was required to leave that facility. The Jones family took her in at Piney Woods and adopted Helen Jones, who became a member of the school's multiple musical fundraising groups -the Cotton Blossom Singers, the Swinging Rays of Rhythm, and, at age eleven, she played trombone in their International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Touring through much of the eastern U.S. the Sweethearts developed a significant following and in 1943 they severed ties with the Piney Woods school. In his book One O'clock Jump: The Unforgettable History of The Oklahoma City Blue Devils (Beacon Press, 2006), D.H. Daniels quotes the legendary black newspaper, the Chicago Defender reacting to the band's 1943 performance at Chicago's Regal Theater, writing it was "One of the hottest stage shows that ever raised the roof of the theater!" Over four-thousand fans waited in line for a show at the Palace Theater in Memphis, Tennessee and in 1945 they performed for African American troops on a six-month tour in France and Germany. Among their fans were Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, and Louis Armstrong. The group played to wildly enthusiastic audiences throughout the eastern black circuit and at top venues such as the Apollo, Savoy Ballroom and the Howard Theater in Washington D.C. Nevertheless, Sherrie Tucker reports in Swing Shift (Duke University Press, 2000), neither the white or black press typically emphasized their musical skills and instead wrote about their appearance, marital status, and similar lightweight topics. In their lifespan of 1937-1949, they were given the opportunity to record only five songs though their music was later covered on International Sweethearts of Rhythm: Hottest Women's Band of the 1940s (Rosetta Records, 1984). The first integrated all women's orchestra in the U.S. included "International" in the band's name because the personnel, while predominantly African American, included members from diverse and random heritages: African, European, and Puerto Rican descent. Alma Cortez was a Mexican clarinetist, Nina de La Cruz, an American Indian saxophonist and saxophonist Willie Mae Wong was of Chinese descent.

Some of the most prominent members of International Sweethearts of Rhythm joined the group, post-Piney Woods. Among them was the bandleader and vocalist Anna Mae Winburn, who was hired in 1941 and remained with the group until it's end. The Sweethearts refined their skills with the guidance of Eddie Durham who had played, composed and/or arranged for Benny Moten, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, and other top tier bandleaders of the time. In American Women in Jazz (Wideview Books, 1982) author Sally Plaksin details Durham's role in "polishing" the act for the big time. He often focused on presentation, not in the usual sexist manner, but a carefully choreographed twist that turned leering vulnerability into visual art. Plaskin describes Durham's optics around Nova Lee McGee, the Sweethearts' Hawaiian trumpet player: "When they come out, Nova Lee McGee plays the solo...and they blackened out all the stage...the five saxophones would move down to the front in the dark. You wouldn't know they were there." Despite the success of the dramatic effects and excellent musicianship, Durham found male patrons to be as skeptical as conspiracy theorists. "Then a lot of guys went to the box office and wanted to see Mr. Schiffman [the owner of the Apollo]. The musicians wanted permission to go backstage and see what boy's band was back there playing, see how this thing was done. 'It was pantomime, they got to have a band back there,' they said. 'Ain't no girls can play like that.'"

Among the most notable players in the Sweethearts was saxophonist Violet May "Vi" Burnside. Like Winburn, Burnside joined the band in 1941 and remained for the duration. She toured Europe with the Sweethearts' USO concerts during World War II and post-Sweethearts became a leader, fronting Vi Burnside's All-Girl Band and Vi Burnside's All-Stars into the 1960s. In 1953 she briefly reunited with Winburn playing in Harlem. Burnside later became an official in a Washington, D.C. musicians' union. Trumpeter Tiny Davis (Ernestine Carroll) joined the Sweethearts in the early 1940s and remained until 1947. Known as "Queen of the Trumpet," Davis was frequently compared to Louis Armstrong for her playing. Upon leaving the group she formed an ensemble called the Hell Divers, presumably based on a class of WWII fighter plane. Signed to the Decca Records label, the group toured into the early 1950s. Their bassist, Ruby Lucas, became Davis' life partner and the two opened Ruby's Gay Spot, in Chicago where Davis was active in music into the 1980s. Willie Mae Wong had never played the saxophone when she was recruited into the band but achieved stardom on the baritone.
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