When [drummer] Stanley Kay [Kaufman] founded the DIVA Jazz Orchestra in 1992, one of the reasons was that he remembered all these great women in the big bands during World War II, and knew from that era that women could play their asses off but didn’t see them getting those opportunities in the present. He mentioned the [International] Sweethearts of Rhythm, of course, but also Viola Smith, because she was a drummer. He knew her, and she started coming to hear DIVA and we became friends.
I had never heard of her when he first told me about her. So when I first learned about Viola, it was very frustrating. How was it that I, with my doctorate in jazz, didn’t know anything about her? Because women are so left out of the history books. You had to dig deeper to find them. That meant that she wasn’t an early idol for me, the way that Buddy Rich or Philly Joe Jones were. It makes me sad that I didn’t have her as an icon growing up.
Nonetheless, she was an inspiration. It meant so much to get to know her and to have some “ear time”: to have her listen to me and share stories with me. She was on the road a little, but she was also on Broadway and in TV and film—a dream career for any freelancer. She said over and over, “My life was so easy. I never had any barriers, I just went right through.” She never talked about it being difficult—in [the 2011 jazz documentary] The Girls in the Band, she said that you weren’t allowed to wear saddle shoes because people might think you were a lesbian. That was the only “struggle” I ever heard her talk about.
In fact, my big takeaway from talking to her was, “Wow, this woman has so much confidence.” To be able to say, “Yeah, I know I’m great. You have to let me in, because I’m fabulous”—she didn’t say that out loud, but everything she did had that confidence in it. She developed her own stage persona and personal signature, and even her own kind of hipness.
And it was really something to come across video footage of her playing—she didn’t really have any recordings—but man, she was just great! She had this unique setup, with two toms up by her shoulders, and made an original contribution to jazz early on in a way that’s taken me well into my career to do myself. She also had this show-business acumen that matched her level of virtuosity: She was a great performer and entertainer, kind of like the way Jo Jones was on the bandstand. It brought her joy to express herself like that on the stage.
It brought me joy to discover her, even well after the fact, and to be a friend and colleague of hers. I hope everybody who doesn’t know about her will go and check out clips of Viola Smith. They’ll be inspired too.
[as told to Michael J. West]