Viola Smith Day

November 29, 1912 – October 21, 2020

 

A tribute to the pioneering female jazz drummer

Drummer Viola Smith passed away on October 21, 2020 at the age of 107.

She was born as Viola Schmitz on Nov. 29, 1912 in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin, taking up the drums to play in an all-girl orchestra with her six sisters that was organized by her father.

In the 1920s and ‘30s she played in the Schmitz Sisters Family Orchestra, performing in vaudeville and at movie theaters in addition to appearing on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour on radio.

In 1938 she started the Coquettes with her sister Mildred (who played reeds), an all-female orchestra that lasted until 1942.

In 1942 Viola Smith attended Juilliard and became a long-time member of Phil Spitalny’s Hour Of Charm Orchestra (staying until 1954 and being billed as “the female Gene Krupa”), also working with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, performing at Harry Truman’s inauguration in 1949, and leading Viola and her Seventeen Drums in the 1950s and ‘60s

During 1966-70 she played as part of the Broadway production of Cabaret and then continued working with various local bands even as she passed her 100th birthday.

Despite her long career, Viola Smith does not seem to have made any recordings in a jazz setting, however this impressive 1939 short with Frances Carroll & The Coquettes displays her technique, power, swing, and her unusual drum set which includes two large tom toms and 13 drums in all.

-Scott Yanow

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