JAZZ: Scott DeVeaux, W.W. Norton & Company


. . . World War II opened doors for women in the work force. Did that spill over into jazz?

Yes it did. You know, by the time that most of male America between the ages of 18 and 25 were in the armed forces, I mean, this was essentially the same kind of work force that was, you know, that swing bands used. So a lot of people are being called up, and in fact a lot of bands are being reconstituted, like Artie Shaw's, in the military. So bands are trying to find ways of meeting the needs of dance music, and one of the ways they did was to draw on women. It's really one of the interesting things to think about. Clearly, women had been playing music all along, but society made it clear that having women performing in public was somehow not acceptable. There are a few women who actually are performing as members of all-male bands, but that was about as peculiar at the time as having a black person performing in a white band, so generally speaking if women were going to perform, they had to perform in what were known as all-girl orchestras.

Some of these all-girl orchestras are not really jazz- related; like Phil Spitalny and His Hour of Charm was like, you know, women with harps and violins and things like that - this is a big draw actually during this time period. You look at the numbers of people that these people will draw in; this is actually huge during the time period. But there are a number of swing bands that especially come into place during the Second World War - The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, The Prairie View Co-eds.

All these bands are actually able to tour as bands, usually with some of kind of chaperones to make sure that everything was above-board. But they could play and they in some cases – I mean, it's sort of like they were mostly in what we would call, you know, a notch or two below the top- level bands. There are a lot of dance bands out there and there are a lot of these, sort of a notch or two below, that were touring everywhere in the country, and a lot of these all-female bands were part of that. They often didn't make a lot of recordings, but what we hear makes it clear they really did know what to do. Of course, that doesn't really last much beyond the Second World War. As soon as the guys came home it was understood that the gals had to get out of the way and go back to doing what they were doing. Just like the all-girl baseball teams that A League of Their Own, you know, that movie talks about. But it does make the point to everybody that women could do this stuff and that there's nothing inherent about swing that has to be male.