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

It takes awhile to assimilate this well-researched but uneven book about female musicians who took advantage of expanded opportunities induced by World War II. Titled in part after “swing shift Maisies,” a slang term for substitutes for the real workers (or musicians) who were away at war, the book reveals how these adventurous women persevered.

Although there were hundreds of all-girl bands, author Sherrie Tucker-a longtime jazz fan who conducted interviews for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program and is currently Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges-narrows reportage to several bands from the late swing era, rather than the usual 1930s period.

Tucker began her research nine years ago and admits she was initially thrown by stories “far too complex to fit neatly into the heroic pattern” she had expected. Thus, she focused on those that simultaneously “countered mainstream notions that women’s bands didn’t exist” and challenged her “second wave feminist hopes” for finding “historical utopian women’s communities.”

A 29-page introduction details Tucker’s approach to this scholarly book which “grew in tandem” with her dissertation at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Three main sections, “Playing the Changes of World War II,” “Road Hazards” and “USO-Camp Shows,” contain three chapters each on the effects of World War II on jazz bands, working conditions on the road in the Jim Crow South, and performing at USO-Camps for U.S. troops.

Men and women both played swing, though bands were usually separated by gender and race. Tucker picks her champions, devoting comprehensive single chapters to African American swing bands such as the Prairie View Co-eds, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm and the Darlings of Rhythm. While these black all-girl bands were not political organizations, they sometimes hired white musicians when it was against Jim Crow law, forcing white members to darken their faces for safe passage when touring the South. Tucker believes these integrated bands paved the way for the sit-ins, marches and protests of the 1950s and 1960s.

Other chapters discuss white all-girl bands such as Phil Spitalny’s Hour of Charm Orchestra (1934-1954), an “amateur” group conveying “feminine leisure and domesticity” rather than the raw swing musicianship exhibited by their African American counterparts; Ada Leonard’s All-American Girl Orchestra, the first all-girl band officially signed by the USO; and the Sharon Rogers All-Girl Band, an assemblage formed in 1940 in Chicago which has held regular reunions since its 1947 breakup.

The average reader, looking for a light, entertaining yet informative read might find this 400-page tome (with notes, sources, index and 45 black & white photographs) to be uneven and ponderous. Reading often becomes cumbersome due to chapter length, unwieldy paragraphs containing too many themes or Tucker’s tendency to repeat herself. A better effort at self-editing or the practiced hand of a knowing editor would have enhanced readability. The small typeface doesn’t help either.

Chapters were obviously written at different times and no distinct writing style emerges. Some chapters hold your interest; others you’ll want to skim (or skip). Chapter three offers a stimulating in-depth account of “Extracurricular Activities With the Prairie View Coeds,” a college band that toured heavily from 1944-46, including successful engagements at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. But chapters on the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and the Darlings of Rhythm bog down under Tucker’s feminist viewpoint and seem wordy and poorly organized.

Tucker conducted nearly 60 interviews with former all-girl band members, yet the book rarely includes substantive first-hand accounts (except her own chapter nine diary documenting attendance at the 1993 Sharon Rogers All-Girl Band reunion). Although Tucker filters much of what she heard (or read) through a feminist, race-conscious perspective that may ruffle some readers, her accounts of these all-girl bands are noteworthy, especially when compared with major swing jazz histories by male authors who tend to diminish or dismiss contributions of female musicians.

Originally Published