Sweethearts On Parade

From the cover art to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm compilation album. i i

hide captionFrom the cover art to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm compilation album.

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
From the cover art to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm compilation album.

From the cover art to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm compilation album.

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

Today, All Things Considered aired John McDonough's story about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-female, racially integrated (but mostly African American) jazz big band of the 1930s and 1940s. They toured the country for years, and even had European gigs after World War II. But for decades, they were a something of a forgotten historical footnote:

In the 1940s, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm fought a two-front war: gender on one side, Jim Crow on the other. When they were rediscovered by academics in the '70s and '80s, it was not in music programs but Women's Studies departments, where they were more important as political symbols than working musicians.
To the Sweethearts, however, it was always about the music. For nearly a decade, these 17 ladies crisscrossed America by sleeper bus, generating excitement and often breaking records set by the big name man-bands.
But sex cut two ways: Audiences saw women and expected a novelty, not a jazz band. Today the Sweethearts' footprint in music history is as petite as Snow White's slipper. Just a handful of recordings survive, most from Armed Forces radio broadcasts.

There's a good deal more in the piece. In fact, there's a bit of activity around the International Sweethearts of Rhythm these days. Riverwalk Jazz featured the band on the program recently. And they're the focus of this year's Smithsonian Jazz Appreciation Month next week, where the two surviving band members will participate in a panel discussion about women and jazz.

Speaking of women and jazz, a forthcoming documentary called The Girls In The Band focuses on that exact topic. (There's a crowdfunding effort to finish the film, if anyone's interested.) The Sweethearts, and a whole bunch of female players past and present are featured — at least according to this trailer:

You may remember that last October, Lara Pellegrinelli reported about the whys and wherefores of The Mosaic Project, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington's all-female band. (Also, this companion piece.) That's a seriously international lineup.

One more tidbit. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was started as a student band at the Piney Woods Country Life School in rural Mississippi. It eventually metastasized into something bigger, but its roots were in this African American boarding school in the south. Here's a trailer of When Cotton Blossoms, a recent documentary that combines archival film and reenactments to tell the story of Piney Woods founder Laurence C. Jones.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.