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Viola Smith, swing era’s ‘fastest girl drummer in the world,’ dies at 107

Drummer Viola Smith. (NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images)

Viola Smith, a swing-era musician who was promoted in the 1930s as the “fastest girl drummer in the world” and who championed greater inclusion of women in the almost completely male preserve of big bands, died Oct. 21 at her home in Costa Mesa, Calif. She was 107.

The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said her nephew, Dennis Bartash.

With a kit featuring 12 drums, including two giant tom-toms placed near her shoulders, Ms. Smith was from 1938 to 1941 the centerpiece of the Coquettes, an “all-girl” big band that developed a modest national following. Her showcase was “The Snake Charmer,” a jazzy arabesque with explosions of drumming pyrotechnics.

In an era when the dance bands of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw dominated the charts, Ms. Smith belonged to a coterie of female bandleaders who struggled to gain respect for their musicianship. One reviewer called her a “pulchritudinous miss who so adeptly maneuvers the drums and cymbals.”

Ms. Smith had created the Coquettes from the remnants of her Wisconsin family’s all-female band in which she was one of eight musical sisters. She favored crisp and swinging arrangements and was, by several accounts, an egalitarian leader who valued the input of her employees in major business and artistic decisions.

More than a pleasant timekeeper, she was a dervish behind the drums and found it difficult to conduct the group while playing. She turned over baton duties to Frances Carroll, a flame-haired, hip-swiveling singer and dancer whose ravishing looks were accented by decolletage-baring gowns.

The band, soon known as Frances Carroll & the Coquettes, played at nightclubs and dance halls and appeared in several short films and on the cover of the entertainment trade magazine Billboard before dissolving.

By that time, Ms. Smith said, she had spent 15 years on the road and had grown exhausted by the demands of travel. She selected Manhattan as her home base and won a summer scholarship to study timpani at the Juilliard School. She also sat in with bands at New York’s Paramount Theater as many able-bodied male drummers of the day were drafted into military service for World War II.

She caused a stir with her 1942 essay in the music trade magazine DownBeat titled “Give Girl Musicians a Break!,” in which she called on prominent big-band leaders of the day to hire more women.

With men away at war, she wrote, “Instead of replacing them with what may be mediocre talent, why not let some of the great girl musicians of the country take their places? . . . Girls work right along beside men in the factories, in the offices. . . . So why not in dance bands?”

“In addition, there are some girl musicians who are as much the masters of their instruments as male musicians,” she added. “Think it over, boys.”

For the most part, they didn’t.

Within a year, she was playing under Phil Spitalny, whose all-girl band — heavy on harps and chiffon gowns — offered unadventurous material but a steady income. The group, where she remained for a dozen years, was featured on Spitalny’s “Hour of Charm” radio show and in two movies, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (1942) and the Abbott & Costello comedy “Here Come the Co-Eds” (1945).

Ms. Smith later drew attention as a member of the Kit Kat Band jazz quartet featured in the musical “Cabaret,” which ran on Broadway from 1966 to 1969 and then toured nationally.

Ms. Smith retired a few years later but occasionally picked up her drumsticks to play with a California ensemble called the Forever Young Band, which (unlike a Neil Young tribute band of the same name) billed itself as “America’s Oldest Act of Professional Entertainers.”

Viola Clara Schmitz was born in Mount Calvary, Wis., on Nov. 29, 1912. Her father, a cornetist, operated a tavern and concert hall in nearby Fond du Lac that boasted of having the first revolving crystal ball north of Chicago.

He insisted on piano training for each of his 10 children. Viola said she began drumming for the family orchestra because — with her being the sixth child — all the other instruments she liked were taken. She was highly motivated to learn. “So long as we practiced, we barely had to do work around the house,” she told the Women of Rock Oral History Project.

By the 1920s, the enterprising patriarch had formed an all-girl dance band with the Schmitz daughters, billed as the Schmitz Sisters Orchestra (later the Smith Sisters Orchestra). She described her parents in glowing terms, recalling a tightknit Catholic family that traveled by luxurious Pierce-Arrow.

They were in demand for weddings and state fairs and played on the radio as far away as Chicago, once engaging in a musical battle over the airwaves with an all-male band; the weapon of choice was George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Starting in 1936, they toured for a year as part of an all-girl revue sponsored by the Major Bowes radio talent contest.

The band dwindled as some of the sisters left to marry or enter other occupations; one sister died. Besides Viola, the only remaining sister by 1938 was Mildred, who played sax, clarinet and violin. They rechristened themselves the Coquettes and gathered other musicians to form a new group.

Ms. Smith said the popular orchestra leader Woody Herman tried to recruit her, but only as a novelty act pitted against another drummer. Yet in her later DownBeat essay, she spoke of Herman as a rare “progressive” in the field whose 1941 hiring of trumpeter Billie Rogers was a milestone.

Over the years, Ms. Smith recalled that her professional circle included as many mischief-makers as music-makers. She recounted that before her audition for Spitalny, a Coquette named Rose Gilmartin, a prankster who could play two clarinets at the same time, loosened the legs of Ms. Smith's snare drum so that it would collapse on impact.

“I was playing, and my snare drum went way down, my drum started to turn to the side, and it was all chaos! All chaos! And I knew immediately who it was,” she told Sherrie Tucker for the book “Swing Shift: ‘All-Girl’ Bands of the 1940s.”

Ms. Smith maintained her composure, which impressed Spitalny. “It was so bad, with everything going wrong, that he knew that it couldn't possibly be that I didn't set it up right,” she said.

Spitalny's group was one of many all-girl big bands — such as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm — that peaked in the early 1940s and rapidly faded from the scene as men returned from war. The demand for jazz was eclipsed by rock within a decade.

Ms. Smith, who said she was always well paid and lived frugally, traveled in retirement and eventually settled in Costa Mesa to be near her cousin.

She leaves no immediate survivors but often spoke of ardent male admirers — including an obscure young crooner named Frank Sinatra, who propositioned her at a Manhattan ribs joint where musicians gathered. Her subsequent engagement to another man was called off when he was drafted in World War II.

In a 2013 video interview with Tom Tom, a magazine about female drummers, she described a career of few obstacles other than her sex. “One thing always led to another,” she said. “It was all very easy, the transitions, there was no big deal I had to worry about ever. . . . I really had a charmed life. Unless people call drumming work. Then I worked hard in my life.”

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