This is a different kind of post for the GMC. First of all, the only music I can find that features the spotlighted performer is on a video. But it’s also different because I’m going to give you the basics, but then point you toward a couple of other places that do a much better job of telling the whole story of this fascinating lady. Viola Smith, once known as the ‘Female Gene Krupa’, started her career way back in the 1930s — and amazingly, she’s now 102 years old and still doing just fine.
Her story began in 1912 when she was born Viola Schmitz in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin. Her father owned a restaurant and dance hall, and made sure his eight daughters all learned to play musical instruments so that he could mold them into a band. For some of them — especially Viola — it was the beginning of a career as professional musicians.
Before she finally retired from the business, Viola would become a vital part of some of the ‘all-girl’ bands that toured America in the 1930s and 1940s, would appear on radio and TV, and would be a member of the original Kit-Kat band in the famous Broadway musical, Cabaret. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the lady who was known as one of the best ever.
It’s a fascinating story, one that has spurred a number of good articles in recent years. You can find two of the best HERE and HERE, but I would also emphatically urge you to view the video below, which features the lady herself talking about her experiences. It’s interspersed with old pictures and also scenes from a pre-World War II musical short, which you can see in its entirety HERE. It features Viola as one of the stars of the all-girl band known as the Coquettes. Although Frances Carroll is billed first, Viola and her sister were co-founders of the group. (I’ve extracted one of the songs from the film, and you can find it below.)
At last report, Viola was happily retired and living in Costa Mesa, California, surrounded by friends and family.
Viola Smith & The Coquettes – “Snake Charmer”
Those of us who are fans of the big band era know that the tenor saxophone was an important part of its success, and in the early years its use was popularized by guys like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. But there was another saxman around in those days who could stake a legitimate claim as one of the pioneers, even if his name isn’t quite as well-known as the others. That would be Bud Freeman, who was sometimes known as ‘The Eel’ because of an early star-making turn.
Like many of his contemporaries, Lawrence ‘Bud’ Freeman’s long career included a lot of different musical styles, but it all began back in the late 1920s when the teenaged Chicago native first began breaking into the music business. Still feeling his way among several instruments, he settled on the tenor sax and began to perfect his play while learning the ins and outs of the early jazz era. Within a few years he’d moved to New York, where he began to work with some of the best bands around, including those led by Red Nichols, Joe Venuti, and Ben Pollack. His breakout moment came while he was with Eddie Condon, on a song called “The Eel” that featured his long, sinuous solo. Although he still had a long career ahead of him, it furnished him with a nickname that would stick.
It would have been exciting to be a jazz musician based in New York in the 1930s, and Freeman kept busy working with headliners like Ray Noble, Tommy Dorsey, and others. Later in the decade he spent a brief period with Benny Goodman before deciding to try forming his own band, but even though his Summa Cum Laude Orchestra was a much-admired group, the approach of World War II might have shortened its life. In any case, Freeman spent much of the war in the Army entertainment division, and in the years that followed he again entered the professional ranks.
During the 1950s and beyond Freeman stayed busy, either leading his own jazz groups or working with other respected pros, and he was at home in just about every kind of jazz. He not only made a lot of successful records but was also a popular attraction on world tours. He even lived in London for a while, but eventually moved back to his native Chicago. He continued to be musically active into his eighties and also wrote an autobiography in 1989. He was 84 when he died in 1991.
Bud Freeman and his Summa Cum Laude Orchestra- “The Eel”
Okay, I’m not going to get all silly and turn this into a new special feature, but I do want to report that I’ve had another one of those funny musical coincidences. You might recall that I wrote about this kind of thing in a previous post titled Mysterious Musical Occurrences. If you’re new to the GMC or if you don’t remember it, then you might want to take a minute to click on the link. It’s pretty spooky how a trio of strange coincidences – all music related – happened to me in a relatively short time. But today I had another one, and I’m wondering if it’s the first of another group of three.
So it all started when I was watching the TV series Mad Men via streaming Netflix. Even if you don’t watch the show you probably know it takes place in the 1960s, but what you might not know is that the soundtrack includes a ton of good music. Every show ends with a song that connects to the content of the episode and it continues playing over the ending credits. Today’s was Bing Crosby’s “Just a Gigolo” (see video below).
But the funny thing is that after it finished, I switched back from streaming to conventional TV, which happened to be set on one of the many music channels our cable provider offers. Guess what song was playing? An instrumental version of “Just a Gigolo” by Harry James and his orchestra. So I was presented with two different versions of the same obscure old song, one right after the other. Of course, coincidences do happen — but you can bet I’m going to keep my eyes open.
Harry James & Orchestra – “Just a Gigolo”