The International Sweethearts of Rhythm

By  Megan Mayhew Bergman |  November 20, 2011

Girl Band on the Run.

Spring 1909, Rankin, Mississippi. Cedar and longleaf pine rise from the flat land; white tufts of cotton grow from the sandy soil. Reconstruction has not eased the prejudice that sears the average Mississippi mind.

Laurence Jones teaches a barefoot boy to read: Piney Woods School starts with two dollars, three students, and a shack too poor for sheep.

But with little money, a few acres of land, borrowed nails and books, Jones builds a school remarkable in spirit. Piney Woods draws the underserved: the handicapped, the blind, and, eventually, a charter from the governor.

Still, the roar of the lynch mob is never dull; Jones can feel Jim Crow's hard gaze on the back of his neck as he sharpens pencils, erases names from secondhand books.

The music coming out of Piney Woods is, to many, a hotbed of beauty and strangeness, the divine product of alchemy.

At first, audiences want plantation standards: "Swing Low," "Old Black Joe," "Keep Inching Along." The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, a group composed of Piney Woods students, sings hard gospel, and, because it makes money, a little pop. Archie Brownlee takes the lead, scream-singing with abandon, jumping into the crowd with eyes that can't see a landing and a primal voice that finds God without trying.

Back in the schoolhouse, Miss Consuela Carter taps her toe and leans over the heads of teenage girls, teaching jazz standards and the art of a sliding trombone. They sweat in the old building and catch glimpses of undeveloped farmland outside the windows as they play.

We went from John Philip Sousa to Louis Armstrong.

She put a trumpet in my hand and told me to BLOW.

Headmaster Laurence Jones knows good music, and knows he needs money for the school. In 1937, a bus full of music-crazy girls from Piney Woods—The Swinging Rays of Rhythm—hits East Coast venues, sending much-needed cash back to the school.

The Rays clock substantial time on the road, frequenting churches and black establishments in places like Virginia Beach, Des Moines, Charlotte, and Fredericksburg, once playing twelve engagements in sixteen days.

The Swinging Rays become The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, advertised as a band "in whose veins flow the blood of many races." The Sweethearts have one bus in which they sleep, and another in which they learn. Eighteen bunks for eighteen virgins, most of whom have never left Mississippi.

While their friends sit obediently behind desks, listening to retired white PhDs who drive down from New York to teach for room and board, The Sweethearts travel, practice, perform, and travel some more, all the while sending money back home. One of the youngest is Helen Jones, the headmaster's adopted daughter. She's a trombonist with a mischievous aura and her father's work ethic.

Though promoted as "a package of music wrapped in cellophane loveliness," Christian conduct is still expected. There are no gowns, and little glamour. Band manager and chaperone Rae Lee Jones enforces strict rules that forbid extended contact with audience members. At first, The Rays stitch their own uniforms, avoiding the prohibited carnality of silk and satin.

"They had a big old matron," Paul Quinichette, a tenor sax from Count Basie's band, recalls in D. Antoinette Handy's definitive biography of The Sweethearts. "Like a warden—and she'd lock those girls up at night!"

Bussed to armories, nightclubs, theaters, and ballrooms, the girls fill the bandstand and churn out jazz standards dutifully. The quality of their play causes male musicians to raise eyebrows, newspapers to take note: They play as well as men.

Soon attendance records are breaking at Cincinnati's Cotton Club, Atlantic City's Rosedale Beach Club, and Los Angeles' Plantation Club.

A record-label contract and movie offers seem imminent for The Sweethearts. There is, for the first time in the lives of these mostly orphaned, impoverished girls, a possibility of success and comfort—and also of exploitation.

This much is clear to The Sweethearts: They need to earn a living, either by graduating with degrees and skills from Piney Woods, or by making more money from the band's constant stream of engagements. As it stands, each girl is given one dollar a day for food, and a one-dollar allowance per week; it's enough to get by, but it won't make a career or support a family. Furthermore, the Piney Woods administration announces some Rays will not graduate because of time spent on the road.

So one night, the girls pile into the bus and go on the lam. Dr. Jones reports the bus and instruments as stolen. Patrolmen all over the Eastern seaboard are tasked with capturing the runaways. But the girls elude arrest and abandon the bus in Alabama, sending it back with the original driver, a Piney Woods employee.

The Sweethearts scramble for bus fares to Washington, D.C., and, under Rae Lee Jones's hawkish supervision, break free from Piney Woods.

Though the school and musicians will argue the finer points of the scandal over the following decades, two things are clear: 1) The girls are in demand and underpaid and 2) it is hard to educate a celebrated jazz band on the road.

Imagine those girls, sitting on the floor of a sympathetic stranger's house, teenagers all, bold but terrified, knees pressed to their chests, and, after years of travel, the skein of conservative Mississippi lifting from their eyes. Their instruments are shined, their lips sore and buzzing from the euphoric jets of air that pass through night after night.

What do we do now?

This is what they have: patronage from a wealthy Virginian, a reputation, passion for music, and audition requests—girls from all over are desperate for a spot in the band. Venues are eager to book what laymen label a novelty act and other musicians recognize as The Real Thing.

Latina girls, African-American girls, Asian girls, Indian girls, Hawaiian girls, Chinese girls. Straight girls. Lesbians.

There's Helen Jones on trombone, Pauline Braddy on drums, Willie Mae Wong, also known as "Rabbit," on sax, and thirteen others, none of them over twenty. They take a house in Arlington, Virginia, a place they call The Sweetheart House, where they refine their musical abilities. Invitations to perform across the nation pour in, and their bus, which they call Big Bertha, is readied.

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm becomes the first all-female, racially integrated swing band, a bevy of lipsticked radicals ready to blow the world wide open.

1941. There is a vacuum, and its name is war. The big bands are stripped of bandleaders, horn players, bass slappers.

Together, The International Sweethearts have serious talent and undeniable allure. Leading female musicians defect from other bands to join their ranks.

Anna Mae Winburn's band, The Cotton Club Boys, is picked over by Uncle Sam, and she is asked instead to lead The International Sweethearts. What a bunch of cute little girls, she thinks, but I don't know whether I can get along with that many women or not.

Anna Mae, billed as the "Bronze Venus," is a woman cut for fashion: impossibly thin with high cheekbones, a petite waist, and a small but chic gap between her front teeth. During one of their oft-performed numbers, "Jump Children," she stands in front of The Sweethearts, clad in a sleek black column dress, her hands a chironomic blur, shaping melodies with poise. She conducts, sings, and dances, sensual and in control as the music moves through her, for her.

Anna Mae parts the air with delicate hands and bends toward the audience, her smooth voice confident and coy:

I may be small, but baby have no fear
I can climb a hill without shifting gears....

"Do you wanna jump, children?" Anna Mae asks the girls. "Yeah!" they shout.

Anna Mae slides past the sax section; the handsome and understated Vi Burnside rises for her solo, Pauline Braddy on drums grinning from the bandstand above her. Next, the trombonists and trumpeters bring it home; the stage is an elegant frenzy, the horn notes shrill and pure. Anna Mae turns to the audience to dance the song out, her thin arms keeping the girls on point until the last note.

The slew of one-nighters makes for grueling travel. Big Bertha goes from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, then Seattle. Piney Woods, though they have sent a new girl band on the road, still maintains it owns The Sweethearts' orchestra and instruments. The once-symbiotic relationship between the school and girls has soured dramatically.

But the girls are hot. Jesse Stone, who has worked with Duke Ellington and will later be credited as a pioneer of rock & roll bass lines, arranges their songs. Anna Mae continues to land some of the best talent behind the bandstand; in 1943, eighteen-year-old alto-sax player Roz Cron, a Jewish Yankee from Boston, becomes one of the first white Sweethearts. Crowds come out for saxist Vi Burnside, who left The Harlem Playgirls, and larger-than-life trumpeter Tiny Davis.

There is nothing tiny about Miss Davis, an unabashed lesbian whose charismatic voice crackles with jazz, cigarettes, and joie de vivre. She opens her eyes wide when she blows her horn and hams it up in front of the bandstand during her solos:

Don't worry 'bout sugar
'Cause I got it by the ton....
I'm just five by five,
And I'm known all over town
I ain't much when I stand,
But oh when I lay it down
I'm a queen-sized mama,
With a king-sized appetite....

(Tiny Davis, who sings lead vocals in the version of "Jump Children" featured on this year's OA CD, also has fun with the lyrics in that song, replacing Anna Mae Winburn's "I may be small" with "I may be big.")

Even if the Sweethearts are largely invisible to the white world, DownBeat magazine in 1944 calls them "America's Number One All-Female Orchestra." Sometimes there are comediennes and tap dancers out front, or big names like Ella Fitzgerald, but The International Sweethearts can hold their own, get the crowd on their feet without any help.

Though the group originated in Mississippi, it isn't easy to book gigs in the Deep South. Roz and some of the other white girls worry they are putting the band in danger. The Jim Crow laws forbid the mixing of black and white citizens, resulting in separate and rarely equal waiting rooms, bathrooms, dining cars.

When down South, eighteen-year-old Roz tries tight-perming her hair and resorts to wearing orange makeup on the stage. She knows she looks "freakish," she says, but is determined to avoid a raid on the bandstand.

The white girls had to put on dark makeup, Anna Mae Winburn says later, but, of course, we couldn't paint their blue eyes.

The Sweethearts are sneered at when they window-shop together and are turned away from the occasional small town: We don't have any black toilets; you need to find a field and squat.

One night, after a show in El Paso, Texas, some kids crowd around Roz, asking her questions about reeds. A black soldier offers to walk her to the café to join the rest of The Sweethearts, but they can't find the café. Roz realizes two sheriffs are circling them in a car. In moments, they are arrested and taken to jail. The black soldier, about to offer his life for his country, is humiliated by the sheriffs. Get out of town as fast as you can, they tell him. Meanwhile, they take Roz's wallet and toss her in a cell. After a few hours in the dark, one of The Sweethearts, claiming to be her cousin, springs her.

Though the schedule is punishing, they always go big. The Sweethearts frequently net greater applause than male groups in battle-of-the-band competitions. Pauline and Vi wow with their drum and sax solos; Tiny's theatrics bring the house down. Louis Armstrong wants Tiny for his own band, and isn't afraid to say so. (The Sweetheart trumpeters mob him on occasion, asking, How do you hit all those high C's? Practice, he says. They do.)

In 1945, a letter-writing campaign earns The Sweethearts a six-month tour of France and Germany at the close of the war. The band, some of the first black entertainers to travel for the U.S.O., arrives clad in sophisticated uniforms.

I played "Big Fat Momma" in Nuremberg Opera House, says Tiny.

The girls are nervous, but honored. It's a privilege to be there, even if the shows are, for the most part, segregated. The quality of accommodations and company vary. The U.S.O. has not given them the clothes they need to weather a German winter. One day, the engine goes out on a ship they're traveling on. Another day, a German asks the girls: Does the black wash off?

They thought we were just dirty, Sadye, a trumpeter, says.

Roz, en route to a show, sees from the window of a military vehicle the skeletal remains of Dresden, wiped out by sweeping, violent raids from the Allies. A Jew, she marvels at the complexity of her feelings. It seems hatred is everywhere.

1947. The boys are back from the war. Bands are getting smaller. The girls are tired of eating and sleeping on Big Bertha to avoid Jim Crow offenses; some of them want to get married and have babies. There are whispers about income being mismanaged; Rae Lee owes some of the girls money. Tiny and Vi decide not to tour with the band, and each forms her own outfit. Tiny's is known as Tiny & Her Hell Divin' Women.

It has become easier to entertain without talent; sequins and recordings are the new smoke and mirror. Television audiences don't mind that some all-women bands aren't playing the instruments; they just want to see a little leg, anemic gals in fishnets with a high kick.

The remaining Sweethearts, with a lineup that changes almost by the week, limp along until 1949. The sound is big, but the heart of the band is smaller. The real show is over.

In the '80s, Roz is asked why The International Sweethearts of Rhythm ended. "Fatigue after so many years on the road," she says in Handy's biography of the band. "And the realization that the girls were grossly underpaid and exploited."

Tiny Davis, calling herself "wild, loud, and fat," says in the documentary International Sweethearts of Rhythm, "I was butch on the horn. I could sing it. I could swing it." In her late seventies, she wants to keep performing, saying, "I got what it takes, but nobody wants to take it."

There was never a recording contract, only the stage, a decade of glory that gave way to varied careers: studio musicians, nurses, mothers, teachers, switchboard operator.

There is scant video footage of The Sweethearts, and though some of their radio appearances are available on a compilation called Hot Licks (1944–1946), their only other releases were a few 78s for Guild Records and four songs recorded with Rosetta Records. How good were they? As good as anyone remembers. And, as the years pass, very few are left to remember.

As festivals begin to emerge that recognize female contributions to the genre, the jazz historian Leonard Feather writes, "It's long overdue.... All these years people have been trying to eliminate racism in jazz, but nobody's done much to get rid of sexism."

In 1980, the Women's Jazz Festival honors The Sweethearts, bringing them together for the first time in thirty years. When asked what she thinks of the event, drummer Pauline Braddy writes, "I thought it was the greatest thing that could have happened to us, even though we were old before they made us famous."

In 2011, The Sweethearts are honored by The Smithsonian. Tiny Davis, Vi Burnside, and Anna Mae Winburn have passed away, as have many of the girls. Historian Sally Placksin and Radio One founder Kathy Hughes (daughter of Helen Jones Woods, The Sweethearts' trombonist) moderate. Sweethearts Johnnie Mae Rice, Lillie Sims, Sadye Pankey Moore, Roz Cron, and Helen Jones Woods are seated between them. Johnnie Mae Rice, the longtime pianist, sits closest to Placksin, mute and expressionless. Willie Mae Wong, present for the opening ceremony, does not attend the panel.

Did all that practice pay off? Placksin asks Helen Jones Woods, who is hard of hearing, but wickedly lucid.

I don't know if it paid off—I didn't get that much money, Helen Jones Woods says.

An hour into the program, Johnnie Mae Rice has yet to speak. She clasps her still-manicured hands in her lap. The feet that used to press the pedals of her piano are propped on the footrests of her wheelchair. When Sadye tells the crowd that Johnnie Mae was the pianist from start to finish for the band, applause rings out.

That's for you, Aunt Johnnie, Sadye says.

Johnnie hardly blinks.

Throughout the panel, the women make benign, sweeping statements; maybe they are kindly revisionist in their remembering of life on the road. They toy with the summary of memory, grasping at its final threads for the crowd's sake, our sake, even if we've been a little quiet and a little late with the praise for these trailblazers.

A great friendship, a great partnership, moderator Kathy Hughes says of The Sweethearts, gesturing to the last vestiges of a big band, the polite elderly ladies in stockings and tennis shoes who smile, the same ladies who once rocked seedy, smoke-filled jazz establishments in Harlem and Jersey to standing-room-only crowds.

Perhaps the panel has taken the girls back to one of those nights, the Midwest whizzing by as they lie on bunks in Big Bertha. Supper in a brown bag. Doing hair and makeup in the hot parking lot of a jip joint, customers already lining the block, eager to score a seat. Wild applause and dancing in the aisles as the girls tumble into "Jump Children." Blue smoke wafts onto the stage. Tiny is on her feet, waving her horn. Lips burn in the bandstand. Count Basie smiles in the wings as Vi rises for a solo. Anna Mae's smooth contralto melts in the air: the sound of a low note, the space where memory sings.

In the end, though The Sweethearts' determination was beautiful and their actions feminist, one gets the impression that the courage was not for show; it was for the music.

"I'm a musician first," Juilliard-trained bassist Carline Ray says in Jezebel Productions' documentary. "I just happen to be female."