Viola Smith, groundbreaking swing drummer, useless at 107
Viola Smith, the pioneering drummer once dubbed “the world’s fastest drummer,” has died, reports the Washington Post. She was 107 years old. According to the Post, Smith died on October 21 at her home in Costa Mesa, California. The cause of death was complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
Smith grew up in a musical household: her father was a cornetist and her musician sisters played everything from saxophone to violin and clarinet to more. “There were five girls in the family before me and they had the rest of the instruments,” Smith said in a 2013 interview with Tom Tom Magazine. “When the family orchestra was expanded to include a sixth, my father decided that there should be a drum – which was great for me because what instrument could be played better than the drums?”
Smith is considered the first professional female drummer and studied with Billy Gladstone, the drummer of Radio City Music Hall. She was recognized as the drummer for Frances Carroll & the Coquettes, an all-female big band group that became popular in the late 1930s. Not only was she known for her speed and precision, but also her 12 drum kit with high mounted tom-toms.
After her tenure as Coquette, Smith studied timpani at the prestigious New York Juilliard School, where she studied with Ed Fisher. In 1942 she wrote an article for DownBeat magazine entitled “Give Girl Musicians a Break!” In which she argued that big band leaders should hire more women musicians. She also played in Phil Spitalny’s “Hour of Charm” All Girl Orchestra, as well as the Kit Kat Band’s jazz quartet, which starred in the original 1960s production of Cabaret.
Throughout her career, Smith worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Webb, Bob Hope, and many others. She has also performed several times with the NBC Symphony Orchestra and on the Ed Sullivan Show. “I’m really very grateful that I’m accepted as a drummer, as a drummer,” Smith said to Tom Tom shortly after her 100th birthday. “At one time there was no such thing.”