Drummer Viola Smith died last week — at the age of 107. Gender played a huge role in her career as she was one of the very first female professionals in her field, a role she powerfully embodied all her life...


Viola Smith was born in rural Wisconsin in 1912 as one of ultimately 10 siblings — including 8 girls. When Smith was still a teenager, her father decided to create the Schmitz Sisters Family Orchestra in which all 8 sisters would perform. Viola was somewhat arbitrarily assigned drums, a role she quickly embraced with vigour. In 1938, Viola and her sister Mildred did one better with the creation of the Coquettes, a pioneering all-female orchestra.

While Smith was already a trailblazer just by performing in big bands — and playing drums — at a time when very few women played professionally in any capacity, she took it upon herself to promote the cause further. In 1940, she appeared on the cover of Billboard magazine. In 1942, as the war effort meant male professional musicians were being drafted away, she published an article entitled “Give girl musicians a break!” in which she campaigned for the inclusion of more female musicians in bands instead of the lesser talented male musicians who were left behind. An article she astutely ended with: “Think it over, boys”.

The rest of Smith’s life played out about as beautifully as it had started: she won a scholarship to Juilliard, performed at Harry Truman’s 1949 inauguration, played with Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb, was part of the original Cabaret production on Broadway in the 1960’s, played in several major bands and eventually lead her own… in her many years on this earth, she (almost) did it all. And may we say, not in shy way… Rest in noise, Viola!