Meet Viola Smith, the World’s Oldest Drummer: Her Career Started in the 1930s, and She Played Until She Was 107

Update: Vio­la Smith sad­ly passed away this past week. You can read her obit­u­ary at The Guardian.

She may be the most famous jazz drum­mer you’ve nev­er heard of.

Vio­la Smith played with the NBC Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra, per­formed for Har­ry Truman’s inau­gu­ra­tion in 1949, and played in the Kit-Kat Band (see them below on I’ve Got a Secret), in the first Broad­way run of Cabaret from 1966–70. These mark only a hand­ful of her career high­lights. She’s still thriving—and still playing—at the age of 106. While a fall has forced her to rely on a walk­er, she “looks like a sev­en­ty-five-year-old in ter­rif­ic shape!” writes Dan Bar­rett at The Syn­co­pat­ed Times.

Born Vio­la Schmitz in Mount Cal­vary, Wis­con­sin in 1912, Smith start­ed play­ing in the 1920s with her fam­i­ly band, the Schmitz Sis­ters Fam­i­ly Orches­tra (lat­er the Smith Sis­ters Orches­tra). Con­sist­ing of Vio­la, sev­en of her sis­ters, and one of her two broth­ers, they played the vaude­ville and movie the­ater cir­cuit on week­ends. Their father man­aged, direct­ed, and booked the band. An appear­ance on America’s Got Tal­ent, “the 1930s radio ver­sion,” notes Bar­rett, gave Vio­la and her sis­ters the con­fi­dence to form the Coquettes, who gar­nered a con­sid­er­able amount of fame after their debut in 1938.

In 1942, Vio­la wrote an arti­cle for Down Beat mag­a­zine titled “Give Girl Musi­cians a Break!,” sug­gest­ing that bands who lost musi­cians to WWII should hire women. Lat­er that year, when Mil­dred, Viola’s last remain­ing sis­ter in the Coquettes, got mar­ried, Vio­la moved to New York, “where I always want­ed to be,” she tells Bar­rett. She earned a sum­mer schol­ar­ship to Jul­liard, Ben­ny Good­man asked her to join his band (she turned him down), and she played with Ella Fitzger­ald and many oth­er greats. She record­ed film music and played with the Nation­al Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra. She appeared on The Ed Sul­li­van Show five times.

Though often com­pared to Gene Kru­pa, whom she con­sid­ers a “love­ly per­son” and an influ­ence, Smith had a very dis­tinc­tive style all her own, char­ac­ter­ized by a twelve-drum kit with two 16-inch toms mount­ed on either side of her head, as you can see in the clip at the top of the post, in a 1939 per­for­mance with the Coquettes. This was no mere gim­mick. Smith had stud­ied tym­pa­ni at Jul­liard and import­ed clas­si­cal train­ing into her big band sound. (She claims drum­mer Louis Bellson’s use of two bass drums was due to her influ­ence.)

Why isn’t Vio­la Smith bet­ter known? It may have some­thing to do with patron­iz­ing cov­er­age in the press, where she was described as “the girl Gene Kru­pa,” the “fastest girl drum­mer,” “the famous girl drum­mer” etc. Oth­er female instru­men­tal­ists were sim­i­lar­ly belit­tled as “girl” nov­el­ty acts, or ignored, even when they played with band­lead­ers like Ben­ny Good­man, whose orches­tra fea­tured trum­pet play­ers Bil­lie Rogers and Lau­rie Frink. (Smith her­self frowns on women play­ing brass instru­ments, for some odd  rea­son.) In her Down Beat arti­cle, Vio­la named a num­ber of oth­er top female play­ers of the day who deserved more work and recog­ni­tion.

She may for­get things here and here, but Smith still has a steel-trap mem­o­ry for a 106-year old who has lived such a rich life. Her inter­view with Bar­rett is full of detailed rem­i­nisces (she briefly dat­ed Frank Sina­tra, for exam­ple). She gives us a pic­ture of a musi­cian at the top of her game and in full com­mand of her career dur­ing the gold­en age of big band swing. We can cred­it Smith’s life­time as a pro­fes­sion­al musi­cian with much of this con­fi­dence. Like all of her sib­lings she learned to play piano and read music from a young age, and she honed her skills as part of a hard-work­ing fam­i­ly “pit band,” as she says. But she was also dri­ven to suc­ceed above all else, leav­ing behind the con­ven­tion­al life each of her sib­ling band­mates even­tu­al­ly chose.

Smith did it her way—reportedly turn­ing down offers to play in Sinatra’s band and refus­ing band­leader Woody Her­man in order keep play­ing with the Coquettes. She played for the radio show Hour of Charm until she was 63, and has played con­certs recent­ly in Cos­ta Mesa, Cal­i­for­nia, where she now lives, tend­ed to by the staff of a quilt­ing sup­ply shop called Piece­mak­ers. Smith talks eas­i­ly about the sources of her musi­cal longevity—her fam­i­ly band, edu­ca­tion, and the tight-knit com­mu­ni­ty of musi­cians who embraced her.

As for her phys­i­cal vig­or and sta­mi­na, this she chalks up to the rig­or of play­ing the drums, and to relax­ing with a drink or two on occasion—a life­time of activ­i­ty and mod­er­a­tion that has helped keep her sharp and healthy after all of her con­tem­po­raries have passed away. See Smith in inter­views at 100, fur­ther up, and 102, just above, and read her recent inter­view at 106 at The Syn­co­pat­ed Times here.

via McGill Media

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Women of Jazz: Stream a Playlist of 91 Record­ings by Great Female Jazz Musi­cians

The Women of the Blues: Hear a Playlist of Great Blues Singers, from Bessie Smith & Etta James, to Bil­lie Hol­i­day & Janis Joplin

New Web Project Immor­tal­izes the Over­looked Women Who Helped Cre­ate Rock and Roll in the 1950s

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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