During the height of the racial tensions in the United States, a group of women from diverse racial backgrounds formed a band known as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. It was the first racially integrated all-female band in its time. It all started in Mississippi, with a principal named Laurence C. Jones in the impoverished African American neighborhood’s Piney Woods Country Life School.
Inspired by the Melodears, he set out to create an all-female jazz band at Piney Woods to fundraise for the school. The Swinging Rays of Rhythm was born to get money for the school. Later the band would become independent and get the name the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. They got their independence by stealing the school bus when they found out that many will not graduate from school because they have devoted their time to the band and didn’t engage in scholastic activities. Eventually, they severed their ties with the school. They see that they are in high demand and decide to take a wealthy donor’s patronage in Virginia. Anna Windburn (an influential jazz band leader) volunteered for leadership after losing male musicians to the draft from her former band.
The group performed predominantly to black audiences in Harlem, Washington DC, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis (Missouri), Omaha, and Los Angeles. Due to the Jim Crow laws, the girls lived on the bus that they were using to tour the country to avoid trouble. They used the bus for music practice as well as studying for regular school classes. The band’s white members often had to wear dark makeup to look black or say that they were mixed in order to avoid trouble.
Roz Cron (one of the band’s white members) tried unsuccessfully to convince a police officer that she came from a racially mixed background. As a result, she spent a night in jail. The musicians also didn’t make a lot of money themselves, bringing $1 a day for food and $1 a week for allowance. On top of all this, the group had to face casual sexism from other more experienced male musicians who thought less of them due to their gender.
Yet despite these harsh circumstances, the group rose in prominence. Their performance in the Howard Theater in DC set their box office record to 35,000 patrons in one week. It received the honorable title, “America’s No. 1 All-Girl Orchestra” by DownBeat magazine. They had a significant fandom among diverse audiences as they performed in majority-African American venues. Their most crucial contribution was their role in WWII. Their popularity in the African American populace slipped into the military, with African American soldiers writing the band fan letters, asking them to come to Europe to perform. The band answered the call and started touring in Germany, France, and Belgium.
After the war ended, the group began a slow disbanding process. Reasons involved marriage, aging, career changes, and starting families.
The band holds a special place in American history. Despite the racial discrimination and segregation, combined with oppressive gender norms, during one of the bloodiest wars in human history, the band made of a diverse and integrated group of young women were able to have considerable success in their short journey. They were so popular that their talents were used for a good cause: contributing to the war effort. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm stand as a symbol of diversity and overcoming hardships when their very existence was illegal in many of the places where they have performed.
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