I have only recently learned her name due to her recent passing, but I was instantly inspired and curious to learn more about her. As it turns out, she was pretty epic.
In a male dominated industry (and world), she was quickly promoted as the ‘fastest girl drummer in the world’ in the 1930’s, alongside blazing a path for women in music. Viola played a giant drum set that included a double bass drum, an instrument that would years later become a tool for hard-hitting rock drummers.
Where did it all start? Viola smith took up drumming as a teenager in Wisconsin, when her father assembled the ‘Schmitz sisters family orchestra’ (there were 8 daughters)! Their band played in theatres during school holidays and Viola took lessons from drummers in the orchestra pits. They were soon in demand for weddings and fairs. By 1938, she formed another all-female orchestra - The Croquettes. They moved to New York in 1942, where Viola studied under legendary snare drum innovator Billy Gladstone. In the same year, as men were being drafted to war and women taking their place in factories, Viola wrote a now-famous article for Down Beat magazine, arguing for the inclusion of women in the big bands of the day. She wrote: “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 places?
“We girls have as much stamina as men. There are many girl trumpet players, girl saxophonists and girl drummers who can stand the grind of long tours and exacting one-night stands. The girls of today are not the helpless creatures of an earlier generation. “Some girl musicians who are as much the masters of their instruments as are male musicians. They can improvise; their solos are well-defined and thought-provoking and show unlimited imagination”.
At the height of her success, Viola performed with Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb, as well as for the 33rd president, Harry Truman in 1949. Today in 2020, the drumming industry is still very male dominated, with very few female drummers pursuing it as a full time job. I feel it is important to read about these female pioneers and continue to play in their honour. Let’s keep drumming girls!