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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

BLOCK: the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. They were America's first integrated all-female big band.

As the Smithsonian Institution launches its annual Jazz Appreciation Month, John McDonough tells us about the Sweethearts' struggle to get the world to appreciate not just their looks but their music.

JOHN MCDONOUGH: 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.

But to the Sweethearts, it was always about the music. So let's start there.

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MCDONOUGH: In the 1940s, you could often tell an all-girl orchestra.

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Unidentified Man #1: This is the Hour of Charm.

MCDONOUGH: They made a point - some would say a fetish - of an almost Victorian femininity.

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Man #1: Welcome to another program of the restful music of the all-girl orchestra and choir featuring Evelyn and Her Magic Violin all under the direction of Phil Spitalny.

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MCDONOUGH: Contrast the restful rhythms of Spitalny with the wild insurrection of Ernestine Davis of the Sweethearts.

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MCDONOUGH: When it came to music, there was little that was sweet about the Sweethearts. For instance, here are two bands - same music, same period - which do you think sounds more ladylike? Here's band number one.

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MCDONOUGH: This one maybe? Or perhaps this one?

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MCDONOUGH: If you chose number one, sorry, you picked the Benny Goodman Band. These are the Sweethearts right here, tossing all Victorian femininity to the winds.

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MCDONOUGH: 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, because it brought in crowds, girl bands tended to make gender, not music, the axis of their identity. Their names define their roles - The Coquettes, The Coeds, The Debs, The Darlings. The Sweethearts were no exception. They played the girl card, too, as you can hear in this pun-packed introduction from 1944.

Unidentified Man #2: ...the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an 18-carat aggregation consisting of nothing but gals. (Unintelligible) gals.

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MCDONOUGH: Audiences saw women and expected a novelty, not a jazz band. Many found it hard to listen through their expectations to their remarkable music, especially critics who mostly ignored the Sweethearts. Their ears, in a sense, were blinded by their eyes.

Today, the Sweethearts' footprint in music history is as petite as Snow White's slipper. Just a handful of recordings survive, mostly from Armed Forces radio broadcasts.

And then, there was the race issue.

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MCDONOUGH: The International Sweethearts of Rhythm began in the rural junction of Piney Woods, Mississippi, in 1937. Lawrence Jones had founded a vocational school there primarily for young black children and teens. He wanted to raise money by forming a student swing band.

Jones' daughter, Helen Jones Woods, was a member of the band and remembers the beginning.

HELEN JONES WOODS: My father was very much interested in music. They had a white organization called Phil Spitalny and His All-Girl Band, and my father heard the band over the radio one time. He said, I've got a lot of girls here. Maybe I could start myself an all-girl band, and that's how we got organized.

MCDONOUGH: One of the original members was Willie Mae Wong. Her Chinese ancestry helped give the band an international look, along with two girls from Hawaii and Mexico.

Now 90 and living near Washington, D.C., Miss Wong recalls how little she knew about music growing up in Mississippi.

WILLIE MAE WONG: The first dance that I knew about was the one that I played for. At that time, I didn't have radio, electricity or anything in that (unintelligible), nothing.

MCDONOUGH: Seen through the peculiar lens of Mississippi law then, Miss Wong's Chinese face was as non-white as a black one. So the Sweethearts evaded the crime of race mixing and the arm of Jim Crow.

But in 1941, they broke with Piney Woods and turned pro. New talent was brought in, including two white players. One was saxophonist Rosalind Cron. She was hardly noticed in cities like New York and Chicago, but in the Deep South, she was a criminal, and the Sweethearts began to live dangerously.

ROSALIND CRON: We got into Baltimore, and I asked Millie Jones, who was part American Indian, part black, if she'd like to go downtown on a bus with me to window shop. And I decided we should have a Coke. And I said, let's go into Woolworth's. And she and I sat down. We just sat there, and I was becoming more and more irritated. So I said to Millie, I'm just going to stop this waitress and find out why she's ignoring us. And Millie got very excited and jumped up and ran up those stairs. And I didn't know what the problem was, but I ran after her. I mean, she was really frightened.

MCDONOUGH: Later, the road manager explained the facts of life.

CRON: They called me in and explained what the Jim Crow was a series of rules and laws, and explained what life was going to be like from now on. And it would get worse in the Deep South, and I had the option of going home. They would understand. After that Baltimore episode and I had made up my mind right then and there without any hesitation, I knew - in a sense, I knew what I was in for but not really, of course. But I knew whatever it took, that's the way I was going to be. I wasn't going to back down.

MCDONOUGH: White women enjoyed a privileged place in Southern values - to choose to work with blacks was to reject that privilege and the values it represented. In the code of Jim Crow, Cron was a traitor to her race.

In an ironic twist on such fictional heroines as Fannie Hurst's Peola and Edna Ferber's Julie, Cron survived the sheriff by passing for black.

CRON: Oh, you had to. I was a white young girl from the North who had no conception whatsoever. I would either know, understand and learn how to live as a black girl, or I could go home. The kind of face powder that we came up with didn't work. When my skin would look orange, we decided let's just forget it.

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CRON: It was just making sure that you stayed away from the sheriffs - the sheriff. The word today still puts a little bit of fear in my heart.

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MCDONOUGH: There was no need for face makeup in the summer of 1945. The Sweethearts played to cheering audiences, white and black, in Paris and occupied Germany. It was the high mark of their history. The original band broke up in 1949. Years later, another great bandleader, Earl Hines, called the International Sweethearts of Rhythm the first freedom riders.

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MCDONOUGH: For NPR News, this is John McDonough.

BLOCK: And you can learn more about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm at nprmusic.org.

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BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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