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