The 1920s drumming Heroes we’ve met so far, whilst all Americans, represent a quite diverse demographic. Some, such as Zutty Singleton and Baby Dodds, grew up in working-class neighbourhoods in the South, their grandparents likely to have been born enlaved. Others, like Vic Berton, were raised in the North in comfortable, even opulent, surroundings – the children of wealth, privilege and education. Vic was also Jewish, one of the many ethnic backgrounds represented among our Heroes, alongside African and French ‘Creole’ (Paul Barbarin, Andrew Hilaire), Sicilian (Tony Sbarbaro) Eastern-European (Gene Krupa) and Anglo/Irish (Vic Moore, Chauncey Morehouse). Yet despite this quite impressive level of diversity, one fact is uncomfortably obvious: the great drummers in the Twenties, without exception, were all male.
I started writing this article on Friday 8th March 2019 – International Women’s Day. Several people had already asked about important female 1920s drummers, why I hadn’t written a feature about one yet and whether I would be so doing in the future. The simple answer is that I haven’t yet and won’t be doing soon – because unhappily, my research has yet to reveal one. Whilst disappointing, this fact in itself is interesting! Why should it be that amongst the many women who made successful careers as jazz musicians during the decade there shouldn’t be a single notable percussionist? What were their experiences in the overwhelmingly male (sometimes toxically so) world of professional jazz, and might they shed any light on the dearth of drummers with matching chromosomes? Is there something about the instrument which might have had a deterrent effect? Whilst I’d have liked nothing more than to produce a biography of a genuine 1920s drumming Heroine for you today, this essay will at least try to redress the balance by examining the possible reasons for her non-existence.
Female jazz players, whilst always historically in the minority compared to their male counterparts, were if anything no less prominent in the 1920s scene than in any other decade until perhaps the 1970s or ‘80s. For the purposes of this article I’m going to ignore female singers (who, strangely, seem always to have been ubiquitous) and concentrate on instrumentalists – particularly (for reasons hopefully obvious) players of rhythm-section instruments. Fortunately there are plenty of these. In tracing the lives of the Heroes during the 1920s we’ve already met several female musicians who played key roles in certain drummers’ careers. Double-bass player Thelma Coombs (later Thelma Terry) ran a hot dance band in late-20s Chicago and provided a teenaged Gene Krupa with one of his first steady gigs. Margie Creath, pianist in her brother Charlie’s Jazz-O-Maniacs band in 1924 St. Louis, made such an impression on their new drummer Zutty Singleton that he persuaded her to stay with him for life. A year earlier, Bertha Gonsoulin had played piano in King Oliver’s band on their groundbreaking tour of the West Coast alongside drummer Minor Hall, whilst Diyaw (Dyer) Jones, “one of the great trumpet players of her day” inspired a young Tommy Benford. (We have yet to meet Tommy or Minor properly yet, but we soon will). And then of course, there was the unforgettable Lillian Hardin, whose singularity of purpose both behind the piano and in doing business was a major factor in the early careers of Minor’s brother Tubby Hall, Andrew Hilaire and Baby Dodds, as well as that of her future husband, Louis Armstrong.
Other female jazz professionals of the 20s included Valaida Snow and Dolly Jones (trumpets); Audrey Hall, Peggy Gilbert and Irma Young (reeds), and a host of pianists: Mazie Mullins, Lil ‘Diamonds’ Hardaway, Mary Lou Williams, Norma Teagarden, Lottie Hightower, Lovie Austin, Doris Peavey, Mary Colston, Ida Maples, Ruth Green, Edythe Turnham, Julia Lee, Marcella Kyle and Pauline Coates.
This overwhelming preponderance of pianists is remarkable – why should there be such a disproportionate number of women playing piano more than any other instrument? It would appear there were a number of factors at play, but principally that musically-inclined children in the 1910s were usually steered towards certain instruments over others by their parents, according to a set of gender preconceptions largely inherited from the previous century. The great pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton recalled selecting his instrument as a youngster in 1900s New Orleans:
“The piano was known in our circle as an instrument for a lady; this confirmed me in my idea that if I played the piano that I would be misunderstood.”
A lot of Morton’s opinions on masculinity, gender and sexuality are desperately unenlightened by modern standards, but presumably fairly typical of his Edwardian generation and further shaped by the realities of the brothels in which he worked and the attitudes of the men who owned and frequented them – although it’s worth noting that eventually he did overcome his misgivings about being a male pianist.
Reinforcing the idea that women were best suited to keyboard instruments, Margie Creath recalled that her mother bought a piano for her and her sister to learn, whilst providing wind instruments for Charlie and her two other brothers. Historian Sally Placksin in her book ‘Jazzwomen, 1900-Present’ contends that musical boys were often presented with brass and reed instruments since players of these instruments were always in demand in the (all-male) parade bands popular in school and university social and sporting events. Since parade bands almost always contained multiple percussionists, the same can be reasonably assumed to have applied to drummers too. On the subject of parades, it’s also important to note that drums, through their long historical use on the battlefield (for the purposes of long-distance communication as much as morale) were at the time still strongly associated with matters military – a drum was still partly seen as a rather ‘martial’ object and thus far outside the range of a typical woman’s purview.
Another important consideration is an anatomical one. Unlike the modern drum kit (which demands a legs-apart stance from the player) the lack of a hi-hat meant early drummers’ left feet were free, theoretically allowing them to play ‘side saddle’ style. Yet even if you’re a relatively young and fit man, regularly hefting a full set of 20s drums around to work is quite an arduous physical challenge if you don’t drive – I should know. During the early years of the decade few people could afford a car, necessitating portable innovations such as the Barry collapsible bass drum. Whilst being more compact, the Barry is no less heavy than a conventional drum, and to carry it as well as a ‘trap case containing snare drum, cymbals and hardware for a long way is a tough ask for anyone, particularly a young woman wishing to conform to the slender ‘flapper’ body image popular in the period – gym membership was not a popular choice. Pianos, on the other hand, were so common as to be found in most public spaces where music was played, meaning that a piano-playing woman need not fear injuring herself carrying a heavy instrument to work. Whilst some women such as bassist Thelma Terry seem not to have suffered any long-term harm doing just this, that doesn’t discount the fact that other women may well have felt trepidation towards attempting it.
Another potentially offputting factor to consider is the frenetic, hedonistic lifestyle typically lived by jazz musicians in the period, “staying up two or three nights a week then going right on to work” as Louis Armstrong put it, or “panic, parties and pollution” according to Eddie Condon. Aspiring players, regardless of gender, had to conform to this kind of schedule if they wanted to succeed – attending gigs, networking, taking part in the ‘hang’ and being ‘on the scene’. Mary Lou Williams remembered how rapidly her willingness to live the jazz life paid dividends in late-20s Kansas City: “With my sisters, Lucille and Louise, who knew every speakeasy in town, I began to make the rounds […] One night we ran into a place where Ben Pollack had a combo which included Jack Teagarden […] and right away, we felt like friends.” Williams was inspired to become a musician by Lovie Austin (house pianist at Paramount Records in Chicago) who she recalled first seeing in a typically no-nonsense attitude, “conducting a group of five or six men, a cigarette in her mouth, her legs crossed”.
Guitarist Condon in his autobiography ‘We Called It Music’ recalled working with Thelma Terry in Chicago during the middle years of the decade; simultaneously they also enjoyed a romantic relationship.
“She was a guy’s girl; I never had to worry about her no matter where we were, and we were in some curious places. Often we cabareted on the South side until about seven or eight o’clock in the morning. It never bothered Thelma; if she got tired or bored she got up quietly and went home by herself.”
This level of independence and individuality (apparently what being ‘a guy’s girl’ meant) generally stood at extreme odds with the ‘proper’, ladylike behavior still expected of young women. A teenage girl coming of age during the 20s would usually find the next decade of her life more or less mapped out in advance. She would likely be expected to leave school at sixteen, work in a teaching or clerical role for a few years, marry young, retire to become a full-time housewife and begin raising children. Playing jazz for a living (or indeed having any other kind of serious career) was almost totally incompatible with this homely ideal, and those women who pursued music as a profession may well have suffered a certain amount of disapproval for it.
Part of the attraction of jazz for young people was its dangerous, countercultural associations; the jazz musician quickly became a stock character, a byword for dissolute excess as much as for bohemian genius. This was not a world into which many women felt compelled to enter unless they already had some form of access to it. A number of the women we’ve discussed were related to professional musicians: Margie Creath was introduced to the professional jazz scene through her brother Charlie, as was saxophonist Irma Young by her brother Lester, and Norma Teagarden by her brother Jack, whilst Dolly Jones followed her mother Dyer as a pro trumpet player.
Another common thread amongst the testimony of women musicians from the 1920s is a seemingly-ubiquitous notion that men and women would naturally play the same instrument in differing ways. Margie Creath, in evaluating her style on the piano recalled:
“I don’t execute like the men. Off of ragtime, I can do that, but I can’t run all up and down the piano […] I played with harmony and the proper notes and had a pretty good left hand. And I could play the blues. I was noted for my blues.”
She also remembers that pianist Ruth Green could “swing like a man”. I have no idea what she means by that, but the fact that she clearly believed that women and men usually ‘swung’ differently is revealing.
However they may have swung, one of women musicians’ principal assets, from their male colleagues’ point of view, seems to have been a decorative one. Indeed, the contrast between several prominent female jazz players’ outwardly girlish, feminine demeanours and the power of their musical output has been remarked upon as a selling point.
In ‘Just For A Thrill’, his biography of Lil Hardin, James L. Dickerson notes of Hardin that, “although she was undeniably attractive in appearance and feminine in behaviour, often to extreme, she was masculine in outlook and played the piano in a masculine, hard-driving way that was unheard of at the time.”
Eddie Condon’s recollections of his first meeting with Thelma Terry underline her assured manner amongst the musicians and the strength of her playing.
“Nice to see you”, she said casually, ‘I’m the bass player.’ […] When I heard her behind me in the first number I knew she was a musician.”
Yet despite the fact that he was clearly very impressed with her musical ability and her confidence in pursuing an unconventional lifestyle for her sex, Condon also feels the need to repeatedly mention her conventionally attractive, feminine appearance “A beautiful girl walked in”, “A beautiful blonde in the rhythm section”.
As Margie Creath later recalled with some feeling, “Jazz was a man’s world, and I didn’t want to be around all those men.”
It’s not hard to sympathise with her.
Finally, it’s not completely true to say that no woman ever touched a drum on a stage throughout the whole decade. Whilst sadly we have no biographical details for them – let alone audio recordings – the names of a few women from the period who were at least part-time jazz percussionists have survived. A lady named Alice Calloway played both drums and saxophone alongside Dolly Jones in the black scene of early-20s Chicago, whilst D. Antoinette Handy in ‘Black Women In American Bands And Orchestras’ reveals her discovery of the names Shirley Kennedy, A. Patty Carter and Leota Hunt listed as drummers in a 1928 musicians’ directory.
In the world of vaudeville, there was also the famous Schmitz (later Smith) Sisters Orchestra from Wisconsin, with siblings Edwina (trumpet), Irene (trombone), Erma (vibraphone), Lila (reeds), Mildred (bass), Loretta (piano), and Sally (bass saxophone) joined by drummer Viola Smith. Despite the fact that during the ‘twenties young Viola (born 1912) was still a schoolchild rather than a professional musician, and that the family band played novelty music rather than jazz, Smith is more than worthy of mention since she would go on to become not only a fantastic drummer from a technical standpoint, but also an important figure as the most visible and celebrated example of a woman doing this job, particularly during the Swing era of the 1930s and 40s. In the photo at the top of the page, we see Viola seated behind a quite small (for the time) bass drum complete with small suspended cymbal and an assortment of ‘traps, and a steeply-inclined (steel?) snare drum. Viola Smith never stopped playing the drums and was still going strong until shortly before her death in 2020, at the grand old age of 107.
Closer to home, all-woman bands occasionally appeared on the music-hall stage and played for tea-dances in public halls and restaurants in Britain. The photograph below was unearthed by a correspondent in the North-East of England and depicts a late-20s group hailing from Leeds in Yorkshire. Our anonymous bespectacled Heroine is playing a large bass drum, single-tension thumb-tuned snare drum, Chinese tom-tom and some sort of cymbal.
There is also ‘The Band Beautiful’, an intriguing Vitaphone sound film from 1928 featuring a large all-female group named ‘The Ingénues’ (a word in common parlance at the time meaning a wholesome young woman, something akin to a débutante). The Ingenues were a ‘show band’ rather than a purely jazz or dance-orientated ensemble, a format which was gaining in popularity in the later ’20s – Paul Whiteman’s orchestra being the most famous example – and would have provided an entire evening’s entertainment in an all-singing, all-dancing revue including hot music, novelties and comedy routines, classical selections, ‘sweet’ pop numbers, and virtuoso instrumental features by individuals. Needless to say they were a great success on the vaudeville circuit and toured constantly.
The name of the drummer in this film appears to have been Pauline Dove, and although sadly I can find no further information about her, on this evidence she was a very accomplished player indeed. Seated behind a huge percussion console including two terrifyingly big Chinese toms, she powers the band through the opening tune (‘Keep Sweeping The Cobwebs Off The Moon’) with a pumping two-beat feel, punctutated with a snappy choke cymbal. In the second chorus she keeps time on temple blocks (quite an early use of them) and at [0:58] we are allowed a brief close-up of her playing a hot syncopated cymbal break. A ripsnorting rendition of ‘Changes’ follows. The middle portion of the film contains very little of percussive interest (these are the ‘sweet’, classical and novelty elements mentioned previously) but ‘Band Beautiful’ closes with a complex ‘Tiger Rag’ in which Dove plays castanets [7:56] and some superb Sonny Greer-esque choked cymbal [8:11] including a solo break at [8:36]! Finally, here we are privileged to both see and hear a woman drummer driving a band along and providing all sorts of rhythmic colour with obvious control and panache. The magnificent and mysterious Pauline Dove of the Ingénues – likely the closest we’re going to get to a genuine 1920s drumming Heroine.
I’m extremely grateful to Glenn Crytzer (USA) and John Hallam (UK) for their very timely assistance researching this article (originally posted 30/3/19 and revised 31/3/19).