Pioneering Drummer Viola Smith Was ‘An Advocate For The Rights Of All Women Musicians’

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Drummer Viola Smith died Oct. 21 at the age of 107 in Costa Mesa, California.

(Photo: YouTube)

Viola Smith, a pioneering big band-era drummer known as the “fastest girl drummer in the world” who wielded explosive sticks behind a massive 12-drum kit, died at her home in Costa Mesa, California, on Oct. 21. She was 107.

A trailblazer known for her pyrotechnics on stage, where she exploded with a ferocity that belied her diminutive stature, Smith was an equally fierce proponent of women’s rights in the male-dominated world of swing-era jazz.

“Viola Smith was not only one of the pioneering women instrumentalists of American popular music, she was an advocate for the rights of all women musicians trying to make a living in the sexist music business,” said drummer and bandleader Allison Miller, one of the countless female jazz players who owe a debt to Smith. “As a working musician for 90-plus years, she proved that women could master their craft, be a musician among musicians, display versatility and get the job done.”

A prodigy from the get-go, Smith still was a young girl in the late 1920s when she became the drummer for a family band, the all-girl Schmitz Sisters Orchestra (later the Smith Sisters Orchestra) in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin. In nearby Fond du Lac, her parents ran a concert hall. Though her father was a strict taskmaster who demanded long practice sessions from his eight daughters, it was a pretty sweet trade-off for Smith, who took to the drums like a fish to water. “So long as we practiced, we barely had to do work around the house,” she told the Women of Rock Oral History Project in 2018.

Much more than a novelty act, The Smith Sisters could swing with the best of the big-bands, and quickly graduated from local weddings and the state-fair circuit. They frequently traveled to radio gigs in Chicago, where they bested an all-male band playing “Rhapsody In Blue,” and in 1936 embarked on a year-long national tour as part of an all-girl revue sponsored by the Major Bowes Amateur Hour talent contest.

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