Viola Smith was always something revolutionary. He played the drums when no woman was in charge of this instrument and, rather, they used to play the role of singers in the groups. And not only that: he hit the drumsticks after the century of life, when anyone would be, not only retired, but in absolute rest. She was a pioneer, but also a fireproof.
This woman with an endearing look and spontaneous smile passed away on October 21. His death went somewhat unnoticed amid so much pandemic news. Also for not having transcended his work beyond music-loving circles. She left at 107, an age that makes her the longest-lived drummer in history. A wonder of nature.
Born on November 29, 1912 in the small town of Mount Calvary in Wisconsin, Smith was the daughter of ten brothers, all dedicated like her to art. Her father was in charge of guiding them in show business to the point of reuniting her and five other of her sisters were part of a family band called the Smith Sisters Orchestra. From the late 1920s to the late 1930s, at the height of the swing era, they played around the country and attended radio programs. An opportunity that served to uncover Viola’s talent on drums.
It was the beginning of a great story: a woman, energetic and with quality, pounding the drums, an instrument in which men excelled, with stars like Chick Webb and Kenny Clarke. Part of this led Viola to write an article in the prestigious jazz magazine in the early 1940s, Down beat, in which he defended that women could play the same or better than men. Its title said it all: “Give music girls a break!” She was a living example. In addition, she was an artist who innovated. Through studying in New York with the innovative Billy Gladstone, Smith developed the technique of tom-tom, which consists of raising the drumsticks to shoulder height. It gave it a unique character for many, many years.
The Coquettes was the musical group with which he had the most success before the outbreak of the war against the Nazis, formed with his sister Mildred, who was a saxophonist. After moving to New York, he created another girl band called Hour of Charm Orchestra. His great ability with the drumsticks led him to perform for US President Harry Truman in 1949. He was also on Broadway, where he was one of the stars in the production of the famous show Cabaret. In the 21st century, he was fully active in the Forever Young Band: America’s Oldest Act of Professional Entertainers (something like “The Forever Young Band: America’s Oldest Artist Show”).
Viola led the way and many women have followed her path. Great drummers, outside of the jazz scene, like Georgia Hubley from Yo La Tengo, Meg White from The White Stripes or Sandy West from The Runaways. Even in Spain there is Julia Martín-Maestro of the Rufus T. Fireplay band. But before that there was, from almost immemorial times, Viola Smith, a revolutionary woman, an eternal drummer.