CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Remembering Helen Jones Woods (1923–2020)

A founding member of the legendary International Sweethearts of Rhythm, she cut her music career short in the face of sexism and racism

Helen Jones Woods
Helen Jones Woods in the mid-1940s (photo: Bloom Photography Chicago)

Helen Jones Woods, a former trombonist and one of the last surviving members of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm—the first integrated all-female jazz big band—died July 25 at an assisted-living facility in Sarasota, Florida. She was 96.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter, the pioneering broadcaster Cathy Hughes, who said that her mother had died of complications of COVID-19.

The daughter of Dr. Laurence Clifton Jones, the founder of the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi and instigator of the Sweethearts of Rhythm, Woods was an original member of the group—and only 13 years old when she took a chair in its brass section. When the band found success, she left her father’s school (against his will) and moved to the Sweethearts’ new home base of Washington, D.C., from which they toured the country (and eventually Europe) until their disbandment in 1949.

Yet the music repaid Woods’ devotion to it inequitably at best. She grappled with the hardships of life on the road and the exploitative tendencies of the music industry, as well as the ever-present realities of sexism and racism in the United States. For all the Sweethearts’ popularity, their integrated status was a dangerous proposition, especially in the South (where white members often had to wear blackface to temper ugly confrontations). After the band broke up, the light-skinned Woods moved to Omaha, Nebraska, and joined the Omaha Symphony, where she lasted for a single performance before her Blackness was discovered and she was fired.

Stung, Woods left music behind, earning degrees in nursing and social work and laboring for three decades in both fields while also raising a family in Omaha.

“I don’t know if it paid off,” she later said of her music career. “I didn’t get enough money.” Nevertheless, she maintained relationships with her bandmates for the rest of her life, close enough to them that her daughter Hughes referred to them as her 17 “aunts.”

Helen Elizabeth Jones was born in 1923 in Meridian, Mississippi; she grew up believing that her birthday was November 14, but later discovered a birth certificate that said she had been born on October 9. Shortly after birth she was sent to an orphanage in Meridian. However, the orphanage was white; when personnel discovered that young Helen was really African-American, she was no longer welcome. She was quickly adopted by Dr. Jones and his wife Grace.

Growing up on the Piney Woods campus, Helen led a life that was congruent with the culture of the boarding school, especially in its musical immersion. Dr. Jones’ sister had taught music to Coleman Hawkins, and the doctor appreciated both the art itself and its usefulness for fundraising. Initially limiting performances to boys (though also instructing girls), Jones changed his mind when he heard Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra and formed the school’s Swinging Rays of Rhythm in 1937.

Jones wanted his daughter to play the violin; however, she chose trombone because “I liked watching the slide go up and down,” she said in 2011. “I can go up and down too, so why don’t I play that instrument?” At 13, she was one of the band’s three trombonists, performing around the state. The band’s reputation began to grow, and by 1939 they were touring the East Coast. In 1940, after they played to what was then a record-breaking crowd at the Howard Theatre in Washington, DC, their chaperone Rae Lee Jones—with the backing of DC-based concert promoters Al Dade and Dan Garey—promised to make them all rich and famous if they would make her their manager. The following year, the girls all “ran away” from Piney Woods, the headmaster’s daughter among them.

The band changed its name to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and did indeed become famous, crisscrossing the country in a tour bus called “Big Bertha” and performing on radio and a handful of recordings and short films. They worked with the likes of singers Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and the comedian Moms Mabley; they were a huge hit at New York’s Apollo Theater, and were described by The Chicago Defender after a performance at the Regal as “one of the hottest stage shows that ever raised the roof of the theater.” Their popularity on Armed Forces Radio (the Sweethearts’ recorded legacy includes more AFR airchecks than studio records) catapulted them to a USO tour of postwar Europe in 1945.

They did not, however, become rich, and Woods recalled that their manager stole not only her pay but the $3,000 she managed to save. Exhausted by the hard touring life and wanting to move on, the band broke up in 1949. Woods went to Omaha, initially working with local and territory bands. “I would sit in for a while, but then I found out a girl could play trombone better than me, so I retired myself,” she said in 2011.

After her ill-fated stint with the Omaha Symphony, she was done with the music world. She met and married William Alfred Woods, with whom she had four children; earned a nursing degree from Creighton University, followed by a master’s degree in social work from the University of Nebraska; and spent 30 years working at both Douglas County Hospital and Skinner Magnet Center in Omaha before her daughter, Hughes, moved her to the East Coast.

Though a life in music was not for her, Woods freely acknowledged and celebrated her legacy. She participated in a forum (though not the accompanying concert) of surviving Sweethearts in 1980, as well as a documentary in 1986 and a panel discussion and exhibition at the Smithsonian in 2011. “I am one of the most blessed people in the world to have come up out of those conditions in the South and to be with the band, which gave me a chance to see every state and different countries and the privilege to meet some of the great old musicians,” she said. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”

In addition to Hughes, Woods is survived by another daughter, Jackie Woods; two sons, Robert Woods and William A. Woods Jr.; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandson. She was predeceased by her husband, William, who died in 1975.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.