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Viola Smith (1912–2020), pioneering female swing drummer

by Linnea Crowther

Viola Smith was a drummer billed as the “fastest girl drummer in the world,” playing for big bands in an era when few professional musicians were women.

An advocate for women in jazz

Smith grew up in a musical family and played in her family’s all-female orchestra beginning in the 1920s. She and her sister, Mildred, started the Coquettes in 1938, another all-female ensemble that toured the country playing swing and other popular dance music. Initially the bandleader, Smith later turned over bandleader duties to another woman in the band sop she could concentrate on her fast-paced drumming. As many of the nation’s men left to fight in World War II, Smith advocated for bands to hire more women musicians to replace them. Her efforts weren’t particularly successful, though she did work regularly, including in the films “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (1942) and “Here Come the Co-Eds” (1945). In the 1960s, Smith was the drummer for the Kit Kat Band in the musical “Cabaret” on Broadway. She continued to drum all her life, even past her 100th birthday.

Smith’s reflection on her career

“One thing always led to another. It was all very easy, the transitions, there was no big deal I had to worry about ever. . . . I really had a charmed life. Unless people call drumming work. Then I worked hard in my life.” —from a 2013 interview with Tom Tom

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Tributes to Viola Smith

Full obituary: The Washington Post

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