Maisie the musician.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000, 413 pp., $29.95 hardcover.
As a jazz historian, biographer and critic, I was delighted to discover that Sherrie Tucker's book taught me more than the considerable amount I already knew about the history of women jazz instrumentalists. Ken Burns' feted jazz series on PBS omits everything that Tucker includes. That's par for the course when it comes to women jazz instrumentalists. Few books have been written about them, and Tucker is the first to concentrate on the big band era. She
presents a history that looks at ways in which women and men were both present and that recognizes swing culture as a field on which specific gender constructions were affirmed, contested, performed and consumed. Tap your foot to this narrative. Swing was an African American musical development in the 1920s, and it is played to the present day... Swing was played by both men and women, although usually segregated by gender and race. There were hundreds of all-woman bands. (p. 29)
For material, Tucker relied on responses by women to ads she placed in music-industry magazines, as well as stories that appeared in contemporary magazines and African American newspapers, covering the trail blazed by so-called all-girl bands. "There were 230 black newspapers in the United States during the war years, with 2 million readers," she notes. She examines the situation of black women musicians within the context of problems faced by all black women -- and black people in general.
The tide Swing Shift is a play on words: the women played swing, and the "swing shift" in World War Two parlance implied the extra shift, "the shift temporarily added for the sole purpose of wartime production." To avoid the draft, male musicians tried to have music declared an essential industry. They failed, but their claims didn't help the status of women musicians, who were regarded as temporary patriotic substitutes, though most, already playing in bands, belonged to the American Federation of Musicians.
All-girl bands broke up because of lack of bookings when the men musicians came marching home from war. They would have broken up anyway by around 1947, as the big band era ended and small combos began enjoying a vogue that lasts until this day. Big bands became too costly to move around the country after World War Two. But that economic reality doesn't excuse the prejudice that caused the demise of most all-girl bands as soon as the war ended.
For the African American all-girl bands, or for any woman musician in the big band era, life on the road might be hard, but it was more lucrative than work as a maid or a secretary. African American women, and whites too, jumped at the chance to play or lead bands. By 1944, one third of the AFM membership was serving in the armed forces. Controversial or not, the all-girl bands proved their mettle. Women musicians, called Maisies (the music world's counterpart to Rosie the Riveter), began to look reasonably acceptable at that time to a public that also acknowledged that women could build ships and planes.
Only a few women played with the men's bands in the 1940s, most notably Marjorie Hyams, a white woman virtuoso on vibes with Woody Herman; arranger-trombonist Melba Liston, who played with Gerald Wilson; and some pianists. Ultra-gifted, Liston went on to arrange and play for Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. But for the most part, women played with each other, and they had to accept the public's emphasis on glamorous appearance. Trumpeter Ernestine Davis called herself "Tiny," trying to capitalize on her "245 pounds of solid jive and rhythm" when she toured with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Eyeglasses were frequently banned from bandstands. Nevertheless, the women knew they were real musicians, as they suffered through hazardous travel in the segregated South (and the north, too) without help for lodging, food or transportation from booking agents.
Swing Shift offers engaging tales of many specific bands, among them Spitalny's all-white, all-girl band; the lesser-known Prairie Coeds formed at a black, four-year, state-funded Texas college; the occasionally coddled International Sweethearts of Rhythm; and the "raggedy" but swinging Darlings of Rhythm. Tucker tells us that darker-skinned women had a better chance of getting hired to play with the Darlings of Rhythm than the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, whose founder preferred to hire lighter-skinned women (and also hired some white women who darkened their skin to pass for Negro so they could play with the band).
So little was documented about the history of the Darlings that it's hard to know exactly what the band sounded like. Still, Billie Holiday's reaction may offer a revealing response. She appeared with the Darlings in Chicago, when the hand starred at a reopening of the Grand Terrace Ballroom. She was not happy with them. Billie loved the soft-toned, laid-back sound of tenor saxophonist Lester Young for her accompaniment; the Darlings cooked so much that they blew the singer away. Billie wanted them to tone down their blast and even suggested they might do well to bear in mind the sweetness of Paul Whiteman's band.
No matter how coddled they were or weren't, bands went through stresses, hardships, adventures and educational travel for the United Service Organization. They also experienced musical and personal maturation. During her twelve years of research and writing, Tucker managed to reach some of the era's best surviving women musicians, a hardy lot, many of whom went on to continue their careers at great personal cost because of gender prejudice--among them trumpeter Clora Bryant, admired by Dizzy Gillespie, who eventually arranged her own tour of Russia, and globetrotting keyboardist Sarah McLawler.
Tucker gives credit where credit is due, illuminating the living and working conditions and the exploitation of the women, second-class citizens at best within the jazz world, itself a subculture. All-girl bands functioned at a dismal time for the prospects of all women jazz musicians. Only since 1980 have the contributions of women jazz players begun to come to light. Jazz didn't receive full recognition as a major American art form until virtually the other day. The National Endowment of the Arts began funding jazz musicians in 1968, after Congress passed equal opportunity laws, but not until 1996 did Lincoln Center make jazz a full constituent of its performances.
Swing Shift is a feast of facts about the lives, drive and courage of talented women who functioned only on the fringes, at best, of the music world in peacetime, and who brought joy to Americans in the 1940s. Unfortunately, it's not easy to hear them today. Materials for recordings were scarce, and they recorded little. But they are memorialized for all time in Tucker's thoroughly researched narrative.
LESLIE GOURSE, winner of an ASCAP award for a series of articles on women jazz instrumentalists, is the author of Madame Jazz (Oxford University Press), about contemporary players, and biographies Sassy, (Scribner) about Sarah Vaughan; and the forthcoming Carmen McRae: Miss Jazz (Billboard Books, April 2001).