August saw the passing of jazz “trumpetiste” and vocalist Clora Bryant, perhaps one of the final surviving members of the Arlington-based International Sweethearts of Rhythm -- America’s first, most popular, all-female, inter-racial, swing band. The Sweethearts took America by storm from their 10-room Arlington home, Sweetheart House.
The band settled in Arlington from 1942 to 1949, touring nationally and internationally, and setting the record for the most consecutive sold-out shows at D.C.’s Howard Theater. The band performed at Harlem’s Apollo and toured extensively, often featuring star vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald. In response to US troop demand, they shipped-out to perform in Europe during the 1940s. During the war years, the D.C. area was swinging from the clubs of U Street to the floating stage on the Potomac, which hosted big stars like Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington. Patriotic fund-raising cocktail parties and balls featured live music. Venues opened around the clock to entertain government workers, the military and the “Lipstick Brigade” of 200,000 young, single women attracted to well-paid government work in the overcrowded wartime city. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were at the epicenter of the entertainment capital of the world, and they were in great demand here and throughout the U.S.
The Sweethearts originated at a Mississippi school for orphans and the impoverished in the 1930s. The schoolgirl band toured throughout the East raising funds for the school. Bigotry, racial intolerance, and Jim Crow laws created challenges for a touring mixed race group of women during these early days and subsequently. They were also considered to have been exploited financially by the school, which prompted their move to Arlington, escaping in a stolen school bus!
The Sweethearts were already celebrated, but after settling in the D.C. area, they became a magnet, attracting their pick of the best female musicians from around the country. They soon expanded to feature African American, Latina, Asian, Indian and white musicians, in a taboo-breaking and inspiring international mix. Ernestine "Tiny" Davis was one of the recruits who came to play trumpet. In addition to being a charismatic, high energy performer, Ernestine had such tone and power that the great Louis Armstrong himself is reputed to have tried to poach her…and he knew a thing or two about trumpet!
Sadly, the Sweethearts are no more. The location of Sweetheart House, on South Quin Street, is now a highway on-ramp. Relatively little recorded material exists, but fabulous videos of the band are available on YouTube and highly recommended, (check out Tiny’s show-boating solo).
Female musicians – outside the realm of vocalists--rarely get the same spotlight as men, a situation worthy of correction. Equality has been too long coming, despite outstanding female talent. Today, groups like Washington Women in Jazz and Project HERA are just two local organizations creating opportunities to promote and encourage female participation and level the playing field. Support them. If you see venues, festivals or programs with little or no female representation, let’s speak up!