Viola Smith, the pioneering musician known as the “fastest girl drummer in the world,” has died. Per the New York Times, her nephew recently confirmed that she died in her Costa Mesa, California home on October 21. She was 107 years old.
A Wisconsinite, Smith grew up in a large family of musicians. She played in a jazz band alongside her seven sisters called Schmitz Sisters Orchestra, which was formed by their father. The troupe toured via the Radio-Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit while also taking on stray gigs at state fairs and movie theaters in-between. Once the band dissolved, she started another all-female group known as the Coquettes. The ensemble enchanted national audiences in the late 1930s, but Smith’s precision and vibrant energy required its own well-earned spotlight, making her the first female star of jazz drumming.
In 1942, Smith penned an impassioned essay for DownBeat Magazine advocating for female musicians. Titled “Give Girl Musicians A Break,” Smith urged orchestras to hire women in their haste to replace male players drafted by the army: “In these times of national emergency, many of the star instrumentalists of the big name bands are being drafted. Instead of replacing them with what may be mediocre talent, why not let some of the great girl musicians of the country take their place?” Though big bands largely resisted her call-to-action, she still managed to spark some much-needed awareness of the diverse talent available. Also, her own star steadily began to rise.
That same year, she moved to New York with a summer scholarship to Juilliard. Smith later landed a spot on another all-female ensemble, Hour Of Charm Orchestra led by Phil Spitalny. She remained with the group for over a decade, which led to appearances in Abbott and Costello’s Here Come The Co-eds. On her own, Smith made multiple appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, performed at Harry Truman’s inauguration in 1949, played with Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb, and joined various orchestras for stints on Broadway, including the original 1960s production of Caberet.
Smith was known for her ambitious signature set-up: 13 drums, complete with two 16-inch tom-toms at shoulder height. She retired after the end the the Big Band era and ultimately settled in California, where she spent her days playing bridge and enjoying her community. Though she made such an indelible impact in music, especially with following generations of female drummers, the breadth of her legacy still took her by surprise. “It’s all amazing to me what I see now on the internet,” she told Tom Tom Magazine in 2013. “Everything comes as a great surprise. I’m very thankful that I’m accepted as a girl drummer because, one time, there was no such thing.”
Despite her modesty and her respect for other jazz drumming legends like Gene Krupa, nobody got away with dubbing her as the “female version” of her male counterpart. In fact, she was known for issuing an affectionate, but swift correction, letting others know that Krupa was the male Viola Smith.