by Adam Bernstein | The Washington PostOct. 23, 2020 at 11:30 a.m. CDT
Viola Smith, a swing-era musician who was promoted in the 1930s as the “fastest girl drummer in the world” and who championed greater inclusion of women in the almost completely male preserve of big bands, died Oct. 21 at her home in Costa Mesa, Calif. She was 107.
The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said her nephew, Dennis Bartash.
With a kit featuring 12 drums, including two giant tom-toms placed near her shoulders, Ms. Smith was from 1938 to 1941 the centerpiece of the Coquettes, an “all-girl” big band that developed a modest national following. Her showcase was “The Snake Charmer,” a jazzy arabesque with explosions of drumming pyrotechnics.
In an era when the dance bands of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller andArtie Shawdominated the charts, Ms. Smith belonged to a coterie of female bandleaders who struggled to gain respect for their musicianship. One reviewer called her a “pulchritudinous miss who so adeptly maneuvers the drums and cymbals.”
Ms. Smith had created the Coquettes from the remnants of her Wisconsin family’s all-female band in which she was one of eight musical sisters. She favored crisp and swinging arrangements and was, by several accounts, an egalitarian leader who valued the input of her employees in major business and artistic decisions.
More than a pleasant timekeeper, she was a dervish behind the drums and found it difficult to conduct the group while playing. She turned over baton duties to Frances Carroll, a flame-haired, hip-swiveling singer and dancerwhose ravishing looks were accented by decolletage-baring gowns.
The band, soon known as Frances Carroll & the Coquettes, played at nightclubs and dance halls and appeared in several short films and on the cover of the entertainment trade magazine Billboard before dissolving.