Swing Shift: All-Girl Bands of the 1940s
Swing Shift: "All-Girl" Bands of the 1940s
by Sherrie Tucker

Duke University Press, 2000
ISBN: 0822324857
reviewed by W. Royal Stokes
copyright © 2002 W. Royal Stokes

During this past year or so of the publication of major jazz reference works, biographies of major artists, and important critical works, Sherrie Tucker's thoroughly researched and deeply pondered volume devoted to a subject heretofore all but ignored, except in narrowly focused studies or as one aspect of wide-spectrum surveys, may be the most significant contribution to our understanding of jazz history to see print for some time.

If that seems hyperbole to you, pause a moment and ask yourself what you know about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Phil Spitalny's "Hour of Charm" Orchestra, the Prairie View Co-Eds, Frances Grey's Queens of Swing, and the Sharon Rogers All-Girl Band. When you likely can't think of anything to say -- except, "Women occupied the chairs, right?" -- try to identify what instruments Roz Cron, Vi Burnside, Willie May Wong, Ernie May Crafton, Margaret Grigsby, Viola Smith, Joy Cayler, Tiny Davis, and Clora Bryant played. The last named may ring a bell, for this former member of the Prairie View Co-Eds is still blowing trumpet. Of the hundreds who people this book, she is one of the few still active.

Their names have disappeared from history, yet the women who played in the bands whose stories are told in Swing Shift were professional musicians. The evidence Tucker has culled from newspaper morgues, union records, personal testimony, recordings, and myriad other sources indicates that most of them were world-class horn, string, and rhythm players who traveled the nation and even overseas in one or another of the bands whose histories are recounted in this book.

With only a handful of exceptions you won't find their names in the jazz encyclopedias or histories, and if you wonder why this is so, ask yourself if the circumstances of women jazz musicians is much different today than as documented in Tucker's study of all-women bands in the 1940s. (Incidentally, the veterans of the bands in question prefer the term "all-girl bands," Tucker learned when interviewing them, because that is how they were known back then.) As multi-reed and woodwind player Leigh Pilzer mused in an interview with me a couple of years ago, "I wonder if it would surprise the women instrumentalists of the 1930s and '40s to hear that some 50 and 60 years after their days as young players facing stereotypes and ignorance, I still hear that I'm the first woman saxophonist someone has ever seen."

Well, actually, if one goes to the right gigs, one will see quite a few of them, but they are either in all-women units or they are leading their own big bands or combos, more often than not with top-tier male musicians as their sidepersons. You rarely see a woman instrumentalist in a band or combo led by a man. That sort of ghettoizing on the one hand and lock-out on the other does not speak well for a music that began to break down the color line on the bandstand and on the road two-thirds of a century ago, and in the decade preceding that in isolated studio recording sessions.

Tucker begins her account of the 1940s with an Introduction outlining her methodology and her objectives. She comes down hard on the writings of jazz historians of the past who ignored women instrumentalists, but she sees hope in writers of the past two decades and notes the appearance of several major studies, namely Sally Placksin's 1982 American Women in Jazz and Linda Dahl's 1984 Stormy Weather (oddly, neither mentioning nor including in her 20-page bibliography Leslie Gourse's 1995 update, Madame Jazz: Contemporary Women Instrumentalists). In her Introduction Tucker discusses her "narrative tactics" and interview techniques and clarifies that she sees women musicians in the larger context of the treatment of women in U.S. society. "The continued erasure of women from dominant jazz discourse," she observes, "despite a dignified body of published knowledge on women in jazz, points to an ideological morass impervious to pleas for the dignity and heroism of the women who played jazz and swing in the 1940s."

That statement, with its decidedly frank and unabashed feminist stance, is a key to Tucker's approach. It is an altogether justified stance in the opinion of this reviewer, for one does not have to look very far for the surfacing of that "ideological morass." It is all around us in the jazz world and we must get our act together vis a vis women instrumentalists, bringing them into the mainstream of the art form. As drummer Susie Ibarra observed in a New York Times profile a year or so ago, "People talk about how art reflects life, but if jazz is art, how can it reflect life if there are only men playing it?"

Swing Shift is an absorbing read as it documents the travails, horrors really, that faced women musicians traveling the U.S. in the 1940s. Racism, sexism, wartime shortages of fuel and vehicle parts, crooked managers (almost always male), the brutality and criminality of southern police, the hostility of southern (and some northern) audiences, and the hardships inherent in driving hundreds of miles from one-nighter to one-nighter were dealt with by these women, many of them in their late teens and early twenties, with astonishing bravery, warm camaraderie, dedication to their art, and good humor. The accounts are both in the words of the musicians and supplemented by an amazing amount of background information provided in the polished prose of the author. There are many vintage photographs, a bibliography, and 35 pages of notes citing sources and offering details not well suited to inclusion in the narrative text.

This book is an experience that no observer of the jazz scene should be without. It is truly a wake-up call. I see it earning some well deserved awards.

W. Royal Stokes is author of Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson (Temple University Press, 1994), The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990 (Oxford University Press,1991), and Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians about their Careers in Jazz, also from Oxford.

C o m m e n t s

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March 02, 03

Sherrie Tuckerīs book is great. It deserves not only all kind of recognitions; it deserves, because of the theme and the way the author deals with it, to be read and reread and consulted. A door to the women in this history has been opened thanks to Tucker. Let us listen to their music. salud alain derbez

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