Viola Smith, still laying it down at 107

'Louis Bellson came to see me three times mainly to see what I was doing with all those drums'

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Viola Smith in an early publicity photo

On 29 November this year, jazz and show drummer Viola Smith will celebrate her 107th birthday. Amazingly, she still occasionally plays with bands in Costa Mesa, California, including the Piecemakers and the Forever Young Band. The former originates in people working at Piecemakers, a local store selling quilting materials internationally. The latter is a group billed as America’s Oldest Act of Professional Entertainers.

She was born Viola Schmitz, 29 November 1912 in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin, one of 10 children of parents who ran a dance hall-cum-concert theatre at which visiting musicians sometimes played. Reminiscing about these visitors, she remarked that Bix Beiderbecke was “…one of the greatest musicians of all time”.

In the 1920s their father formed the Schmitz Sisters family orchestra, the name later changing from Schmitz to Smith. Like all her siblings she had first studied piano but when she joined the band, at age 11, the instrumental slot still to be filled was as the drummer. In later life she would regard this as fortuitous, believing that playing wind instruments was especially debilitating for women.

Although she never appeared to be irked by it, discrimination was also present, at least by implication, when she was billed as the ‘fastest girl drummer’ and as the ‘female Gene Krupa’

The Smith Sisters band performed on radio and in cinemas and they also toured on the Radio-Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit in Jack Fine’s Chicago Band Revue, in which one of the other acts was the Andrews Sisters. The Smith Sisters disbanded in 1938 and with her saxophonist sister Mildred she formed the Coquettes, an all-female 12-piece group, with which she toured along the east coast and in the mid-west.

There were also appearances in two feature films, When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1942) and Here Come The Co-Eds (1945), and in shorts, including Frances Carroll & The Coquettes, released in 1940, in which she solos on Snake Charmer (available on YouTube – see below).

In 1940 she made the cover of The Billboard magazine, an indication of her standing in the business. In interviews, Smith has remarked that during her time with her Coquettes, Woody Herman asked him to join his Herd as a guest soloist and she was also approached by other big name bandleaders of the swing era. Choosing not to tour, she settled in New York and in the early 1940s began a 13½ year stint with another all-female band when she replaced Mary McClanahan in Phil Spitalny’s Hour Of Charm Orchestra, where she was a featured soloist.

Aware of the prejudice against female instrumentalists in the music business, in 1942 she contributed an article, Give Girl Musicians A Break!, for Downbeat, in which she extolled the quality of women and urged that they should be called on to fill vacancies left as male musicians were drafted. Although she never appeared to be irked by it, discrimination was also present, at least by implication, when she was billed as the “fastest girl drummer” and as the “female Gene Krupa”. Indeed, she spoke highly of Krupa, both as a musician and in person.

Like Krupa, Smith caught the eye in the orchestras in which she played, in her case through having a 13-piece drum kit, including twin tom-toms mounted horizontally at shoulder height. In later years, she remarked that “…Louis Bellson came to see me three times mainly to see what I was doing with all those drums”.

Meanwhile, she was advancing her education, studying psychology and aesthetics at Columbus University, philosophy and English composition at Juilliard

Meanwhile, she was advancing her education, studying psychology and aesthetics at Columbus University, philosophy and English composition at Juilliard School Of Music where she also played in the Juilliard Symphony Orchestra. Musically, she took lessons from leading percussionist Billy Gladstone, whose pupils included Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. At the end of 1940s, she also played in the National Symphony Orchestra and in January 1949 she performed at President Harry S Truman’s Inaugural Ball.

After leaving the Hour of Charm orchestra in 1954, she formed her own band, Viola and her Seventeen Drums. She continued to perform and in the next decade was contracted to provide an on-stage, all-female band for the Broadway production of Sugar and she was also on-stage with the Kit Kat Klub Kittens for the original New York production of Cabaret, starring Joel Grey, Jill Haworth and Lotte Lenya, which ran at the Broadhurst, Imperial and Broadway theatres in the mid- to late 1960s, after which the show toured nationwide. This group was also all-female, the other members being pianist Maryann Burns, tenor saxophonist Janice Mink and trombonist Nancy Powers.

Early in 1974, Smith was on television in Liza With A ‘Z’. Soon after she retired from full-time involvement in music but she continues to play occasionally with local bands and leads an active life, including, as mentioned above, working part-time at Piecework close to her home in Costa Mesa.

On 12 April 2000, she was one of eight musicians honoured at New York’s Lincoln Center in a tribute to women legends in jazz. She was interviewed at length by Angela Smith for her 2014 book, Women Drummers (and is one of the two dedicatees), and she was also interviewed, again extensively, by Dan Barrett for The Syncopated Times website. This was a few days before her 106th birthday in 2018. During these interviews and in the many film clips, this remarkable woman proves herself to have been an excellent musician in her heyday. She remains an inspiration to other female musicians, Beverly C. Collins observing in a 2002 article in Not So Modern Drummer, that Smith “…made an indelible mark on the drumming community”.

As to her longevity, in her interviews she has commented that she exercises and takes vitamins, adding, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that she enjoys wine: “Red wine is better for you than white wine. But white wine is also good for you. So, I always drink a glass of wine. But just one glass. It used to be two”.