The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was the first integrated all women's band in the United States. During the 1940s the band featured some of the best female musicians of the day. They played swing and jazz on a national circuit that included the Apollo Theater in New York City, the Regal Theater in Chicago, and the Howard Theater in Washington, DC. After a performance in Chicago in 1943, the Chicago Defender announced the band was, "One of the hottest stage shows that ever raised the roof of the theater!" More recently, they have been labeled "the most prominent and probably best female aggregation of the Big Band era." During feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s in America, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm regained a significant amount of popularity, particularly with feminist writers and musicologists who have made it their goal to change the discourse on the history of jazz to equally include both men and women musicians. Antionette Handy, flutist, documented the story of these female musicians of color.
The original members of the band had met at Piney Woods Country Life School, a school for poor and African American children, in Mississippi in 1938. The majority who attended Piney Woods were orphaned children, including band member Helen Jones, who had been adopted by the school's principal and founder (also the Sweethearts' original bandleader), Dr. Laurence C. Jones. During a 1980 Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival interview, band member Helen Jones explains that the very existence of International Sweethearts of Rhythm was the direct result of Dr. Jones's vision, who in the 1930s had been inspired by Ina Ray Hutton's Melodears to create an all-girl jazz band at Piney Woods. Always having been an entrepreneur when it came to fundraising, in the early 1920s, Dr. Jones supported the school by sending an all-girl vocal group on the road. Following the fundraising successes of the all-girl vocal group and several other Piney Woods musical groups, in 1937 he formed the Swinging Rays of Rhythm, an all-girl band led by Consuela Carter. The band toured extensively throughout the East raising money for the school. According to the group's saxophonist and bandleader, Lou Holloway, the Swinging Rays of Rhythm took over as the new all-girl swing band in residence at Piney Woods after April 1941 when the Sweethearts began traveling cross-country. Holloway also reveals that the Swinging Rays were understudies of the Sweethearts, and they would even go so far as to perform for the Sweethearts whenever the Sweethearts were forced to attend school because they had been missing too many classes. Indeed, in 1941 several girls in the band fled the school's bus when they found out that some of them would not graduate because they had been touring with the band instead of sitting in class.
Soon to be recognized at the national level, the Piney Woods all-girl jazz band known as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, who had since the band's inception in 1937 performed in affiliation with the school, turned professional and severed connections with Piney Woods in April 1941. Shortly thereafter the band settled in Arlington, Virginia, where a wealthy Virginian provided support for them. Members from different races, including Latina, Asian, Caucasian, Black, Indian and Puerto Rican, lent the band an "international" flavor, and the name International Sweethearts of Rhythm was given to the group. Composed of 14- to 19-year-olds, the band included Pauline Braddy (tutored on drums by Sid Catlett and Jo Jones), Willie May Wong (sax), Edna Williams and thirteen others, including Helen Jones Woods, who was the daughter of the Piney Wood School's founder. Anna Mae Winburn became bandleader in 1941 after resigning from her former position leading an all-male band, the Cotton Club Boys in North Omaha, Nebraska, which featured the famous guitarist Charlie Christian until the band was "raided" by Fletcher Henderson. After she joined the group, Winburn would remain their prominently poised bandleader until their disbandment.
The first composer for the band was Eddie Durham, with Jesse Stone taking over in 1941. Durham left the Sweethearts to form his own band, Eddie Durham's All-Star Girls Orchestra, taking some of the Sweethearts with him. Jessie Stone's biggest contribution to the band was that he brought more professional musicians into the array of performers and worked at length to bridge the gap of instrumental proficiency between the more and the less experienced of the group. Two of Stone's added star performers were trumpeter-vocalist Ernestine "Tiny" Davis and saxophonist Vi Burnside, both of whom were once members of the mid-1930s all-black Harlem Playgirls. The new 16-piece International Sweethearts of Rhythm featured a strong brass section, heavy percussion, and a deep rhythmic sense, along with many of the best female musicians of the day.Lewis Porter, in a record review, shared the general stylistic qualities of the band that are shown in the band's self-titled recording, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm: "The sixteen recordings here reveal the dynamic blues playing and driving riffs for which the band was noted, as captured in Armed Forces Radio Service broadcasts of 1945 and 1946."
The venues where the International Sweethearts of Rhythm played, such as the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., the Regal Theatre in Chicago, the Cotton Club in Cincinnati, the Riviera in St. Louis, the Dreamland in Omaha, or the Club Plantation or Million Dollar Theater in Los Angeles, were predominantly, if not only, for black audiences. Indeed, Leonard Feather states in a Los Angeles Times article about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm that "if you are white, whatever your age, chances are you have never heard of the Sweethearts[...]" In any case, the Sweethearts swiftly rose to fame, as evidenced in one Howard Theater show when the band set a new box office record of 35,000 patrons in one week of 1941. A great advantage to touring across the states was that, in Hollywood, California, they were able to make short films to use as "filler" in movie theaters.
While the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were successful, as they made two coast-to-coast tours in their bus, unfortunately, a few impediments remained in their way for the entirety of their touring career. Nevertheless, as a racially mixed band, they defied the Jim Crow laws of the South. Because of the Jim Crow laws in the southern states of the former Confederacy, during the time that the Sweethearts toured the U.S., the band's pianist Johnnie Rice mentions in the 1980 Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival interview that "[They] practically lived on the bus, using it for music rehearsals and regular school classes, arithmetic and everything." Despite being stars around the country, when the band traveled in the South, all of the members ate and slept in the bus because of the segregation laws that prevented them from using restaurants and hotels. During the 1980 Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival, band member Roz Cron (saxophonist) discussed one of many salient experiences that she and the band had while on tour in the Jim Crow South: "We white girls were supposed to say 'My mother was black and my father was white' because that was the way it was in the South. Well, I swore to the sheriff in El Paso that that's what I was. But he went through my wallet and there was a photo of my mother and father sitting before our little house in New England with the picket fence, and it just didn't jell. So I spent my night in jail." Because of situations like this one, the band members constantly engaged in extra precautionary measures. For example, the white women in the band wore dark makeup on stage to avoid arrest. As if the racial discrimination was not enough, as professional, travelling musicians, for most of their touring career the racially integrated Sweethearts unfortunately made relatively little money to support themselves, as Willie Mae Wong Scott (a saxophonist of the group) explains during the 1980 Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival interview: "The original members received $1 a day for food plus $1 a week allowance, for a grand total of $8 a week. That went on for years, until we got a substantial raise--to $15 a week. By the time we broke up, we were making $15 a night, three nights a week."
After Stone left in 1943, he was replaced by Maurice King, who continued on the tradition of professionalism that Stone brought to the group. King later arranged for Gladys Knight and the Detroit Spinners. The band performed at the Apollo Theater in 1943. In 1944 the band was named "America's No. 1 All-Girl Orchestra" by Downbeat magazine. At this point, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm enjoyed an enormous following among the African-American audiences playing "battle-of-the-bands" concerts against bands led by Fletcher Henderson and Earl Hines and selling out massive venues including Chicago's Rhumboogie Club. In "The International Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Ladies Jazz Band from Piney Woods Country Life School," 2nd Ed., author D. Antoinette Handy unearths a "New York Age" report from early 1944, which describes one particular battle between the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and an all-male big band:
In a recent 'Swing Battle of Music' before a crowd of ten thousand, [the Sweethearts] actually received a larger vote than was given to Erskine Hawkins and his band! They have participated in similar swing battles with Earl Hines and others of the great 'name' bands.
During World War II, letter-writing campaigns from overseas African American soldiers demanded them, and in 1945 the band embarked on a six-month European tour to France and Germany, making them the first black women to travel with the USO.
Vi Wilson, who for a time was a member of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm before she started playing double bass for the Darlings of Rhythm in the late 1940s, speaks of moments on tour when all-women African American bands would have jam sessions that would turn into "battle-of-the-bands" sessions, all of which (at times) occurred in front of an audience of men:
Fellas in those days, they had a competition between the Sweethearts and the Darlings. But the Darlings could play. Boy, we would get in jam sessions with them like, whatever town we were in. The fellas, it was a novelty to them to come see these girls play. They said, 'Those girls play like men.'
In 1980, jazz pianist and historian Marian McPartland convinced the organizers of Kansas City's third annual Women's Jazz Festival into include the reunion and group interview of members of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Included in this interview were nine of the original members, as well as six of the band's later additional members (four of which were Caucasian). This interview was an integral moment in history, where many of the former band members were able to come together, reminisce, and share some of their most salient lived experiences, as women of many different ethnicities playing big band jazz music all over America in the late 1930s and throughout most of the 1940s.
A great number of reasons, both known and purported, have been doled out as to why the International Sweethearts of Rhythm began their gradual disbandment after they returned from their European tour in 1946: marriage, career change, tiring of always being on the road, aging, not enough money for all the effort, managerial issues, deaths in the group, etc. Tiny Davis had to turn down the opportunity to tour again with the band in 1946. Mrs. Rae Lee Jones continued to fight for the life of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, but after 1946, the key instrumentalists had already left the group, leaving the band to unravel and unfold finally with Mrs. Jones's passing away in 1949.
Carline Ray Russell, guitarist for the Sweethearts between May 1946 and March 1947 noted that "the musical tides were changing." Author D. Antoinette Handy shares the conclusions of jazz historian Frank Tirro about a major paradigm shift in jazz history at the time of the Sweethearts' disbandment:
The bebop musician Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, et al was trying to raise the quality of jazz from the level of utilitarian dance music to that of a chamber art form [3 to 6 players]. At the same time, he was trying to raise the status of the jazzman from entertainer to artist.
Despite the impact of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm being repeatedly ignored in popular histories of jazz, the band enjoyed a resurgence in popularity among feminists in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, the band was among the first marketed as women's music. Several feminist writers, musicologists, and others have taken on the task of elevating women's contributions to and integral participation in the making of jazz history. For example, Sherrie Tucker, author of several articles on the subject matter as well as the book "Swing Shift: "All-Girl" Bands of the 1940s," states the importance of bringing women into the male-dominated construction of jazz history:
[T]hrough serious study of jazzwomen's oral histories, scholars might learn new narrative strategies for imagining and telling jazz histories in which women and men are both present. Because women who played instruments other than piano were seldom the 'favored artists' of the 'superior genres,' and because they were hardly ever recorded, they have had little access to the deceptive 'coherence' of mainstream histories. Therefore, they are uniquely positioned to suggest new frameworks for telling and interpreting jazz history.
With this said, perhaps one of the greatest outcomes of the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, for the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and their devoted fans at least, is the record contribution of the producer Rosetta Reitz, who has shared with the world a small but quintessential piece of aural history. Her biographical liner notes for the International Sweethearts of Rhythm record, as well as top quality recordings, have been made available worldwide through her company, Rosetta Records, whose focus is primarily to feature female and black jazz and blues musicians who are not usually recognized for their tremendous talents.International Sweethearts of Rhythm has been a record compilation simultaneously produced with Greta Schiller's and Andrea Weiss's production of the Sweethearts' documentary film, created in 1986 "at the onset of the third-wave feminist movement."
There has also been considerable scholarship conducted regarding the "International" aspect of their name and the effect it had on the band's acceptance among African Americans and whites in the South. According to one authority the band consisted of "Willie Mae Wong, the band's Chinese saxophonist; Alma Cortez; Mexican clarinet player; Nina de La Cruz, Indian saxophonist, and; Nova Lee McGee, Hawaiian trumpet player." The first white musicians joined in 1943.
There were also several lesbians in the band, including Tiny Davis, whose independent music career and partnership with Ruby Lucas were later the subject of Schiller and Weiss' documentary Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin' Women.
In 1986 the documentary  by Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss premiered in the New York Film Festival.
The lineup of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm changed throughout the band's career.
The band only formally recorded four commercial songs during their existence.
The following album is a compilation of many of the live radio appearances they made.
Tracks: Bugle Call Rag, Galvanizing, Sweet Georgia Brown, Central Avenue Boogie, Lady Be Good, Gin Mill Special, Honeysuckle Rose, Diggin' Dykes, Slightly Frankie, One O'Clock Jump, Tuxedo Junction, Jump Children, She's Crazy With The Heat, That Man Of Mine, Vi Vigor, Don't Get It Twisted
There are also a few tracks available on Big Band Jazz: The Jubilee Sessions 1943-1946 on Hindsight Records. A 2004 DVD called The Swing Era: Sarah Vaughan features Vaughan, along with little-seen material from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.