Born in 1912, Viola Smith is one of the first professional female drummers and is pretty badass on the drums. Born Viola Schmitz in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin, her dad owned the town’s restaurant and dance hall. He made sure each child played an instrument, and the family orchestra became known as the Smith Sisters.
Later Viola and her sisters formed the Coquettes, part of a wave of all-female orchestras that helped to keep up morale during World War II.
“My seven sisters and I each started playing the piano when we were five and six years old. My two brothers also practiced piano – until they overheard Dad say that he had an all-girl orchestra in mind! We had two pianos and an organ to accommodate this arrangement. By age 11, I was playing drums.”
She was a trailblazer, penning an opinion piece for Jazz magazine Downbeat, entitled “Give Girl Musicians a Break,” which implored jazz groups and orchestras to not discriminate against female musicians.
She appeared on the Ed Sullivan show many times and also on the cover of Variety more than once. Viola played in the Broadway production of “Cabaret,” and in 1948 accepted a scholarship to prestigious school Juilliard. In 2000, Viola was featured in a New York Times story on all-girl bands. A woman of incredible skill and musical ability, Viola has had an impressive life-long career in music.
Bands of female musicians used to be a part of the ‘freak show’
“During the summer we’d play county fairs and state fairs. In those kinds of venues, it wasn’t so unusual to see an all-girl band, because the fairs always featured the strange things that were happening in America, such as an 800-pound man. As girl musicians we were part of that – we were “strange” in the early 1920s.”
She survived an era when nobody wanted to give female musicians a chance
Girl musicians used to have trouble getting any work at all. You had to prove yourself. You had to be heard, but how could you be heard if nobody gives you a chance to be heard? This was the situation for years and years. I always had a job, like the Coquettes, which was an offshoot of the family orchestra. We had some very important dates for the band in big theatres around the country. But this all happened naturally because I came from the family orchestra. The work was just laid out for me. I didn’t fight for it. But all the girl musicians outside of that had a problem, a real problem.
Best of all she attributes her youth to drinking wine
“I went to Europe for two summers and got into the wine-drinking habit. There is a community in southwestern France where a lifespan of 100 years is very common. I drink one large glass of wine daily. I also take vitamins – in moderation. In all my drumming years, I’ve only missed one performance and one rehearsal, when glass fell from a second-story window and hit my wrist.”