Vail Jazz: The Sweethearts of jazz
Inside the Vail Jazz Festival
In the early days of jazz, women were limited to the role of a vocalist and rarely performed as an instrumentalist. By the early 1920s, things were changing for women in America and Lil Hardin, a pianist, successfully joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. She later played with, and married, Louis Armstrong. Although the marriage ended, she went on to have a very successful career as a pianist, composer, arranger, singer and bandleader.
Hardin was a trailblazer, but it was the legendary pianist Mary Lou Williams whose talents were so prodigious that the male jazz establishment had to stop and listen. Unfortunately, Mary Lou was the exception and most women jazz musicians during the 1920s never received comparable acceptance.
By the mid to late-1930s through the mid-40s, however, women (especially African American women, who had very limited career opportunities) began to find opportunities to play. While a select few would ultimately become members of some of the more famous big bands, especially during World War II when many men were drafted, the real opportunities for women were in all women’s bands, many of which were organized and toured extensively in the U.S. With audiences segregated, the bands were organized along racial lines and generally didn’t perform in front of audiences of another race. One of the most prominent early all women’s jazz bands was the Melodears, led by Ina Rae Hutton (born Odessa Cowan).
In 1938, inspired by Hutton, an all-girls (initially the players were teens) band was organized in Mississippi at Piney Woods Country Life School for orphans, poor and African American children. By 1941, the Sweethearts of Rhythm began touring extensively throughout the U.S. and by the end of the war, in Europe, as well. Initially, band members were girls of color, but gradually the band became integrated with players who were black, white, Asian, Native American, Latina and Puerto Rican. The band adopted the name International Sweethearts of Rhythm to reflect its diversity.
Best of the best
The Sweethearts were the top women jazz musicians of the day and were the best known and respected all-women’s band, being named by “DownBeat” as “America’s No. 1 all-girl orchestra” in 1944. The Sweethearts were pitted against the top all male bands in many “battles of the bands” and by numerous accounts “out swung” their male competition.
But the sad reality was that the Sweethearts were largely unknown to white audiences. When they toured, they were forced to confront racism, especially in the South, and with limited or no availability of lodging and meals, they found themselves being forced to eat and sleep on their touring bus. Because of their racially mixed composition, the white women in the band wore dark make-up to conceal their race, and on at least one occasion, one of the white Sweethearts spent a night in jail for trying to perform with the band.
End of an era
The big band era was drawing to a close after the end of World War II and bebop was the new craze. In addition, many male jazz musicians who had served in the military returned home and rejoined their old bands, replacing the women who had filled their positions. It should be noted that most women who played in mainly male bands during that era reported that they were treated harshly and subjected to sexual harassment.
The Sweethearts carried on for several years after the end of World War II, but the changing interests in music, changes in personnel due to marriages, aging and deaths, poor pay and the drudgery of life on the road caused the Sweethearts to be disbanded in 1949.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is readapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’s 25th anniversary season in 2019. For information about upcoming performances, visit http://www.vailjazz.org.
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