Viola Smith, wellicht de eerste vrouwelijke professionele drummer, viert vandaag haar 105de verjaardag. Op de onvermijdelijke standaardvraag aan 100-plussers, antwoordde ze ooit: ‘Wat je moet doen om zo lang te leven? Veel drummen, wijn drinken en lezen!’

In de rubriek Opmaat van de Slagwerkkrant nr.190 (nov-dec 2015) kan men een artikeltje vinden over Viola Smith. In de jaren veertig stond zij bekend als “de vrouwelijke Gene Krupa”. Deze pittige dame, die behalve een snelle en technisch begaafde drummer, ook een waar voorvechtster was van gelijke rechten en respect voor musicerende vrouwen (bepaald niet vanzelfsprekend in die tijd), was een van eerste professionele vrouwelijke drummers, en werd bekend en zeer populair met The Coquettes All Girl Orchestra van zangeres-dirigente Francess Carol (‘when I swing my stick, the girls play every lick’). Zij bleef tot zeer late leeftijd actief.
Born as Viola Schmitz, she grew up in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin, with seven sisters and two brothers. All learned piano first, but only the girls were to be in an “all-girl” orchestra conceived by their father. [Her parents operated a concert hall in Mount Calvary.] Irene (Schmitz) Abler played trombone, Erma Schmitz on vibraphone, Edwina Schmitz on trumpet, Viola Schmitz on drums, Lila Schmitz on saxophone, Mildred (Schmitz) Bartash on bass violin, Loretta (Schmitz) Loehr on piano and Sally (Schmitz) Ellenback on bass saxophone.
They toured the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) circuit of vaudeville and movie theaters on weekends and summer vacation while some of the sisters were still in school. According to her nephew, Dennis Bartash, playing with her sisters on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour radio show in the 1930s was her big break. In 1938 Viola and Mildred started the Coquettes, an all-female orchestra, until 1942. Mildred Bartash played the clarinet and the saxophone.
Viola Smith penned an article in 1942 for Down Beat magazine titled “Give Girl Musicians a Break!” in which she argued that woman musicians could play just as well as men. She argued: “In these times of national emergency, many of the star instrumentalists of the big name bands are being drafted. Instead of replacing them with what may be mediocre talent, why not let some of the great girl musicians of the country take their place?”
In 1942, after Mildred got married, Smith moved to New York, was given handmade snare drums from one of her teachers, Billy Gladstone, received a summer scholarship to Juilliard and joined Phil Spitalny’s Hour of Charm, a commercially-successful all-girl orchestra. Later she would play with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
Her signature style of 13 drums, particularly, two 16 inch tom-toms at shoulder height, was never copied, however, Smith noted Louis Bellson using two bass drums after meeting and observing Smith with the tom-toms. During this time, Smith recorded music for the films When Johnny Comes Marching Home and Here Come the Co-Eds as a member of the National Symphony Orchestra, and even performed with Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb. She gained notoriety as the “female Gene Krupa” and the “fastest girl drummer”. Smith performed at president Harry Truman’s inauguration in 1949.
She remained with the Hour of Charm orchestra until 1954. After Hour of Charm disbanded, she led her own band, Viola and her Seventeen Drums. From 1966 to 1970 she played with the Kit Kat Band, which was part of the original 1960s Broadway production of Cabaret.
In 2016, she was reportedly still actively drumming at the age of 104 in a Costa Mesa band called Forever Young Band, as one of the oldest mainstream musicians still alive. [Wikipedia]

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