The Girls Could Swing, Too

By Albertson, Chris | The New Crisis, November/December 2000 | Go to article overview

The Girls Could Swing, Too


Albertson, Chris, The New Crisis


As Sherrie Tucker points out in her book, Swing Shift: Add-Girl Bands of the 1940s, a number of all-female orchestras toured the country in the thirties and forties, struggling to survive and to be taken seriously as artists in a rough, male-dominated field. Most of these orchestras are long forgotten and, quite frankly, many of them were not very good. But novelty and the right exposure sometimes compensate for shortcomings.

Thus, weekly radio broadcasts helped turn Phil Spitalny's rather ordinary Hour of Charm Orchestra into the most widely popular of the all-female instrumental groups, and made a star of his wife, the featured soloist billed as "Evelyn and her magic violin." Spitalny's polite doll-gowned group offered a repertoire played in a bland style that sharply contrasted with that of such female bands as The Prairie View Co-Eds, The Darlings of Rhythm, Sharon Rodgers' All-Girl Band, and a number of groups that more or less remained local.

Among the most notable of the so-called all-girl swing bands were three whose style fit right into the Swing Era: The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the Harlem Playgirls, and the Dixie Sweethearts. Their infectious rhythmic beat, growling trumpets, and virile tenor saxophones belied the image of women as dainty pianists and harpists. A book, recordings, and a film documentary in recent years have brought some attention to the International Sweethearts. The most prominent and probably best female aggregation of the big band era, the Sweethearts were actually not so much international as they were multi-ethnic, which made life on the road extra hard during treks through the segregated South.

World War II took some of the best male jazz and dance musicians-and, indeed, whole bands-off the scene for military duty, opening the door wider for all-girl orchestras. For years, pianists like Lovie Austin, Lil Armstrong and Mary Lou Williams led male bands, and no one thought anything about it. Acceptance, however, did not come as readily when a woman played drums or a horn instrument, which was considered "unladylike" and was quickly dismissed as a novelty. Gender bias in the music business is a subject that has been touched on before but never dealt with in any depth. So Tucker's book, pubfished last April by Duke University Press, promised to fill an important gap in the literature of American music.

Unfortunately, it is a promise unfulfilled. Tucker has accomplished the seemingly impossible: writing a lusterless book on a subject that is anything but dull. Tucker clearly spent considerable time researching her subject, conducting interviews with surviving band members, and scouring books and periodicals for information. That is as it should be, and the book does, indeed, contain significant information. But its value is diminished when facts are mired in page after page of gender-biased vitriol.

Readers, who are unfamiliar with the subject or lack historical perspective, will have a hard time discerning fact from the author's speculations. Time and again, Tucker reads complicity into simple statements, sometimes injecting conjecture so far fetched as to be laughable. The result is that the reader is constantly taken off track, and potentially absorbing stories become turgid political statements. …

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