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)

In 1938, after several Smith sisters left to get married, the orchestra morphed into The Coquettes, an all-female big band founded by the drummer and her multi-instrumentalist sister, Mildred. Smith’s fiery drum solos became the band’s centerpiece—including her trademark “Snake Charmer” showcase—and The Croquettes enjoyed a modest run of success as a touring act until Mildred quit to get married.

Always an independent spirit, Smith broke off her own engagement after her fiancé was drafted and alone moved to New York, where she won a scholarship to The Juilliard School and established herself as a performer. After studying with the celebrated drummer Billy Gladstone, Smith perfected her signature style as the “female Gene Krupa” and went on to play with everyone from the NBC Symphony Orchestra to Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb. She also penned a proto-feminist manifesto for DownBeat in 1942, titled “Give Girl Musicians A Break!”

“In these times of national emergency, [when] many of the star instrumentalists of the big-name bands are being drafted, why not let some of the great girl musicians of the country take their place?” Smith argued in her impassioned piece. “The girls today are not the helpless creatures of earlier generations. Some girl musicians are as much masters of their instruments as are male musicians. They can improvise, their solos are well-defined and thought-provoking and show unlimited imagination.”

Though the pioneering jazz feminist concluded her screed with a provocative tagline—“Think it over, boys!”—much work was left to be done. It remains so today. Still, it was the first real call to arms from women in the musical trenches, and Smith herself went on to have an enduring career.

She performed at President Harry S. Truman’s 1949 inauguration, had a long-running stint with the popular all-girl House Of Charm orchestra, and led her own band, Viola and Her Seventeen Drums. Smith also played with the Kit-Kat Band in the original 1960s Broadway production of Cabaret, and continued to perform on and off until she was well into her 90s. From her early days in the family band to her later gigs playing with Hollywood film orchestras, Smith was in her chosen profession for the long haul. And why not? “We girls have as much stamina as men,” she told Drum Talk TV in 2017. “Girl drummers can stand the grind of long tours and exacting one-night stands.”

And so can Smith’s illustrious “girl drummer” inheritors, from Terri Lyne Carrington to Miller, who set her own course following the path Smith forged.

“What an inspiration,” Miller enthused. “I am grateful to Viola for persevering and showing us that it can be done. Her joyful rhythmic spirit will live on in our beating hearts.” DB

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July 2021
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