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The All-Female Big Bands That Made History During World War II

Apr 17, 2019
Originally published on April 17, 2019 6:49 pm

During World War II, with thousands of men shipping off to war, half a dozen all-female, instrumental big bands toured around America. It was a rarity in a musical world dominated by men and, for the most part, their stories have been erased or minimized in jazz history.

Jazz Night in America host Christian McBride has spent years tracing the history of some of these bands and notes that during this flourishing time for all-women groups, the 17-piece International Sweethearts of Rhythm had the most formidable level of popularity.

"They were probably the first all-female band taken seriously," McBride says, explaining that the Sweethearts were boundary breakers in more ways than one. As an integrated ensemble, the Sweethearts often faced obstacles when touring the Deep South. McBride spoke with Rosalind Cron, a saxophonist in the Sweethearts, about the band's experiences on the road.

"I hadn't heard the Jim Crow laws," Crons remembered. "And we were on a trip going straight down to the Deep South. They told me I had to have a story if I was stopped — what my parents were like, where were you from and that sort of thing — and I made up a story that my father was white and my mother was black."

As McBride says, the most touching part of reliving these times with Cron was that none of her harrowing experiences made her bitter. "She feels like she went through that so these days could be better," he says.

The legacy of the Sweethearts, and other all-females acts like The Coquettes, lives on today with big bands led by women. McBride says the Sweethearts paved the way from the 1950s through the modern era to present-day bands like the DIVA Jazz Orchestra.

"Jazz community can't afford to be exclusionary," McBride says. "We need more people playing this music. The music itself doesn't care who plays it. A B-flat doesn't care who plays it. We want women playing this music, we want people from all walks of life playing this music."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The big names of the big-band era are mostly men - Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington. But in the '20s and '30s, a number of big bands sprung up that were led and played by women.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOIN' THE SUZIE-Q")

LIL HARDIN ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Now, come gather round us, folks. Let us tell you about this swing. Let us tell you about the dance was invented just for you.

CORNISH: Lil Hardin Armstrong and her swing orchestra was one of them. Then when World War II broke out and millions of men shipped off overseas, these female bands got a chance to shine.

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE, BYLINE: That was the height of the big-band era, the swing era. And as far as the ladies were concerned, there were so many men that were over fighting in the war, these all-female bands started to rise.

CORNISH: That's Christian McBride; bassist, composer and host of NPR's Jazz Night In America. He says this is a forgotten chapter in jazz history. But it was filled with enormously talented bands.

MCBRIDE: During that period, there was one band with a level of popularity that was quite formidable. And they were called the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNATIONAL SWEETHEARTS OF RHYTHM'S "SWING SHIFT")

MCBRIDE: They were probably the first all-female band taken seriously. They were the first all-female band which fans and musicians alike heard them and went, oh, boy. They're serious (laughter).

CORNISH: Right. They were a 17-piece big band. And I understand you actually sat down with one of the surviving members of the band, right?

MCBRIDE: It was a thrill to go to Los Angeles and speak with Roz Cron, who was a saxophonist in the International Sweethearts. And she's 93 now and just such a beautiful, beautiful spirit.

CORNISH: And we should say Roz Cron is white. Were these bands integrated?

MCBRIDE: Yes, very much so. And one of the many things that she shared with me was what it was like touring through the South during the Jim Crow era because, you know, part of the Jim Crow law was that integration was illegal. So to have a band of ladies from all of these different backgrounds - white, black - one of the many things that she shared with me was what it was like having to pass for black.

ROZ CRON: I hadn't heard the Jim Crow laws. I heard Jim Crow, Jim Crow. But I...

MCBRIDE: Didn't know what it was.

CRON: I didn't know...

MCBRIDE: Right, right.

CRON: ...What it was. And we were on a trip going straight down to the Deep South. And they told me I had to have a story if I was stopped - what my parents were like, where we were from and all that sort of thing. And I made up a story that my father was white, and my mother was black.

CORNISH: So there is the danger element, right? - the fact it's all women. It's integrated. We're talking the Jim Crow era. How were they treated in terms of kind of respect or pay?

MCBRIDE: They were not paid well. They made one-fourth of the money that the guys made. And that was all over. That was not just the South. That was also in the North. But what really touched me deeply was that none of those harrowing experiences made her bitter. She feels like they went through that so these days could be better.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: So are there more women out there still alive who can tell their stories?

MCBRIDE: Well, there's Clora Bryant, an amazing trumpeter who was also part of that band with Roz and the International Sweethearts Of Rhythm, and also Viola Smith, a wonderful drummer in the band called The Coquettes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCBRIDE: There were a lot of all-female bands at that time. But there's a very small number of women from that era still around.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Now, there are still big bands today. But are there big bands led by women?

MCBRIDE: Oh, yeah. The International Sweethearts Of Rhythm really did pave the way all through the modern era to a band of today like The DIVA Jazz Orchestra. This is actually their 26th year of existence and they're one of the greatest bands in the world, period.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCBRIDE: Jazz community can't afford to be exclusionary, you know? We need more people playing this music. The music itself doesn't care who plays it. A B flat doesn't care who plays it (laughter). We want women playing this music. We want people from all walks of life playing this music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: That's bassist, composer and host of NPR's Jazz Night In America Christian McBride.

Christian, thanks so much.

MCBRIDE: Always a pleasure, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.