Nonfiction Monday: Trailblazers of Swing, Strutting Their Stuff on the Bandstand

h1 February 25th, 2008 by jules

Last summer, Knopf Books released Tonya Bolden’s Take-off: American All-Girl Bands during WWII, and it’s taken me this long to review it. But that’s not because it lacks in any way: It’s a well-researched, engagingly-written piece of nonfiction. In fact, Bolden composes her narrative in true hep cat style, incorporating swing slang and a distinctive rhythm to her prose (in the introduction, while addressing the gap women filled after so many men were drafted into World War II, she writes, “{w}hat was a woman with a beat to do—a woman who’d rather riff than rivet? With scads of cats drafted and volunteering for military service, more chicks jumped at the chance to bandstand.”)

One of the many successes of this book is that it will appeal to history lovers, students interested in women’s studies, and definitely music-lovers of all stripes. Opening the book by addressing the dominant idea that a proper woman at the start of the 1940s in America wouldn’t be playing in a swing band (“Many people thought it downright devilish for a woman to make a sax wail, produce walking-bass plucks, let loose hot licks on skins, or make other moves in service of the most dynamic dance music of the day”), she jumps right into the pioneering female jazz bands — Marian Pankey’s Female Orchestra, an all-black band, and Babe Egan’s Hollywood Redheads, all-white, to name two. She then profiles Ada Leonard and her All-American Girl Orchestra (click here to see a fabulous video of Ada and her band performing “Back Home in Indiana”), the Prairie View Co-Eds, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm (pictured here under the Prairie View Co-Eds), and many more, all the while addressing women’s rights and issues of racism that prohibited even more success for so many of these bands.

The Prairie View Co-Eds with musical director Will Bennett in the spotlight

The Prairie View Co-Eds with musical director Will Bennett in the spotlight

International Sweethearts of RhythmBest of all, a CD accompanies the book, including tracks from Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears, Valaida Snow, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the Booklist review adding that they like the book but that “readers need at least a nodding acquaintance with swing music” to appreciate it (though I find that arguable) and that the accompanying CD helps (“Bolden’s introduction,” they write, “which features opinions from Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, and others, gets things off to a good start”).

Research notes, a glossary, and selected sources (books, articles, liner notes, periodicals, videos, recommended reading, and recommended listening) are also included at the book’s close.

I just have to share the book’s final two paragraphs, which summarize the book’s spirit and verve quite well:

“Post-war books on jazz ignored chick bands completely, or gave them cursory and usually condescending mention. Most famous (and infamous) is the damnation from former Metronome editor George Simon, whose column was called ‘Simon Sez.’ In his 1967 book, The Big Bands, Simon said of Ina Ray Hutton: ‘The early part of her career had been spent fronting an all-girl orchestra, one that most of us have forgotten and that she has probably been trying to forget ever since she gave it up to surround herself with men. For her all-girl orchestra was like all all-girl orchestras. “Only God can make a tree,” I remember having written in a review of some other such outfit, “and only men can play good jazz.”‘

Oh, no, Daddy-o, historians, mostly women, countered in years to come. They produced articles, books, lectures, and documentaries that put the spotlight on groups like Ada Leonard’s All-American Girl Orchestra, the Prairie View State College Co-Eds, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Thanks to chicks with a pen and a lens, in the late twentieth century, interest in early all-girl bands begins to take-off.”

An appealing, accessible look at the oft-ignored female heroines of swing. Here’s Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears, “doin’ the Suzy Q.” Enjoy . . .

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One comment to “Nonfiction Monday: Trailblazers of Swing, Strutting Their Stuff on the Bandstand”

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