Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) has rolled around again, and that’s cool, baby, cool. The National Museum of American History kicked things off by having several original members of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm as guests at the JAM Launch festivities at the beginning of April. But whoever might these Sweethearts be, you ask?
As it turns out, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were the first integrated all-woman’s band in the United States, and in their hey-day (the 1940s), they toured nationally, playing swing and jazz, featuring the top female players in the country.
Formed in 1937 and originally titled Swinging Rays of Rhythm, the band changed its name to “International Sweethearts of Rhythm” to fit the multi-ethnic composition of the group, as they’d continue to prominently feature and recruit women of all different races, including Mexican, Asian, Caucasian, Native American and African-American. The Sweethearts were founded at the Piney Woods School in Mississippi, an institution primarily for poor and African-American children. The band initially served as a way to raise funds for the school and for the students’ educations; however, in 1941, the band separated from the school and went pro.
Out on the tour circuit the Sweethearts faced the double-whammy of both gender and racial bias. And like any minority band of the time, they were forced to deal with segregation and the Jim Crow laws when touring in the South. But even though it was against the law for mixed-race groups to travel and perform in the South at the time, they went ahead and did it anyway. There were a few white women members of the band, and they’d occasionally disguise themselves by painting their faces for performances in order to blend in with their other band mates, so the police wouldn’t remove them from the stage or arrest them.
By performing with mixed race groups in the South, the white members of the group were rejecting the exclusive privileges granted upon them by Southern society. Consequently they were looked upon as traitors to their color. “I would either know, understand and learn how to live as a black girl, or I could go home,” recalled white saxophonist Rosalind Cron in an interview with NPR in March 2011. “Everybody knew this was dangerous territory.”
Sure, the Sweethearts were trailblazers, and they were named America’s #1 All-Girl Orchestra for 1944 by Down Beat magazine, but they also got the attention of other top musicians. Both Eddie Durham (of the Count Basie Band) and Louie Armstrong took an interest in the Sweethearts, according to original Sweetheart vocalist Anna Mae Winburn (1913-1999). “They would come and stand in the wings of the Apollo Theater and listen to the band,” she said in an interview with allabout jazz.com. “And I could see them back there smiling when the girls would take off on their instruments.”
The original International Sweethearts of Rhythm broke up in 1949, but pictures and mementos from the band are on display at the American History Museum during April as part of the 10th annual Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM).