International Sweethearts of Rhythm: Swing Is a Female Thing

International Sweethearts of Rhythm: Swing Is a Female Thing

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Although they are not as well remembered as their male counterparts, there were a number of female-only bands in the early decades of jazz. Harlem musician Lil Hardin had her All-Girl Band in the 1920s. The Ingenues toured the vaudeville circuits in the 1930s. But the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, who wowed audiences throughout the 1940s, were special for a couple of reasons. For one thing, they were the first racially-integrated women’s band. But just as important was the opportunity this organization afforded dozens of talented women to play some of the hottest swing jazz in America.

In 1937, a group of girls at the Piney Woods Country Life School in Rankin County, Mississippi, started playing music together. They were coached by the school’s principal, Laurence C. Jones, who was also the adoptive father of the girl who would become the Sweethearts’ most famous instrumentalist, trombone player Helen Jones. After a few years of committed rehearsing and local gigs, they set off on tour in 1941. That year, the band found a wealthy patron in Arlington, Virginia, and made that city their base of operations.

They used the word “International” in their band name because, although the majority of the musicians were Black, there were also several white members and a couple of Latina and Asian players. This fact led to serious challenges during tours, since segregation laws in the South prohibited all the women from staying in the same hotel or eating together in restaurants. Often the band slept on the bus. They were also limited in the kind of venues where they could perform.

The band worked with Jesse Stone as their composer and arranger. He brought in some “ringers,” professionally trained musicians from New York, to bolster the group’s overall quality. Among them were trumpeter/singer Ernestine “Tiny” Davis, trombonist Vi Burnside, and singer Big Maybelle Smith. The band’s conductor was Anna Mae Winburn, who also sang and played guitar.

In the mid to late 1940s, the band used movie theaters to promote its work, producing “soundies,” one-song performance videos to be shown before a feature film. We are fortunate that several of those still exist, as do a handful of other tracks. Some of those were recorded for release on 10-inch singles, while other were broadcast live on radio shows.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

  1. Track: “Jump Children”
    Year: 1946

Meet Anna Mae Winburn, who led the Sweethearts. Once she brings in the horns, she turns around and sings the heck out of a tune first recorded by Count Basie, better known as “Do You Wanna Jump, Children?” The trumpet section behind her is as powerful as any in the business at the time. They really pull off the energetic two-feel in the “jump” part of the title, referring to “jump blues,” or an up-tempo swing style structured like the blues. It was a favorite form and style for Basie, who also recorded other jumps by the songwriting team of Donahue, Van Heusen, Bryant, and Selsman.


  1. Track: “She’s Crazy with the Heat”
    Year: 1946

Here’s an all-instrumental soundie, featuring Anna Mae Winburn and her idiosyncratic but effective conducting technique. This song is credited to Maurice King, who was one of the band’s go-to custom composers. At the piano is Johnnie Mae Rice, one of the original members from back at the Piney Woods school.

Over time, ten different women played trumpet in this band, and I have not been able to determine which of them has the solo in this film. (By the way, whoever posted the video on YouTube identified it as 1945, but the Library of Congress, which catalogs soundies, says 1946.)


  1. Track: “How ’Bout That Jive”
    Year: 1947

Ernestine “Tiny” Davis was one of the New York pros that the band’s arranger hired to help out the Sweethearts. Her lion of a voice lays down this blues so hard that it won’t be getting up again. The horns have a lively conversation with her as she sings “I’m a queen-size mama with a king-size appetite.” And then she picks up her trumpet and lets it sing the last verse. Unfortunately, the end of her solo is cut off on this video, and this is not one of the tunes included on the best-of audio compilation that came out in 2013 on Rosetta Records.

Interestingly, Davis started her own group in the late 1940s, which recorded this song at a faster tempo, more like a jump.


  1. Track: “Lady Be Good”
    Year: 1944

No jazz band or artist made it through the 1940s without recording some Gershwin. This hot! hot! hot! rendition of “Lady Be Good” was preserved from a live radio broadcast. A bunch of the band’s radio tracks were collected and released in 2007 on an album called Hot Licks put out by Sounds of Yesteryear.

The wildly imaginative drumming is by Pauline Braddy, another of the Sweathearts’ original members and always an audience favorite.


  1. Track: “Swing Shift”
    Year: 1944

“Swing Shift” is another tune that the Sweethearts borrowed from Count Basie. It was written by trumpeter Buck Clayton, and offers plenty of close harmony and syncopated energy for the horns. These women have real power.

It’s also worth mentioning that the song “Swing Shift” gave its name to an interesting scholarly book by Sherrie Tucker (Duke University Press, 2000) on the all-girl bands of the 1940s.


  1. Track: “One O’Clock Jump”
    Year: 1946

More Basie, and maybe the best of his famous jump blues numbers, one that he co-wrote with Eddie Durham and Buster Smith. The recording, from a live broadcast, is especially fun because it’s a heavy-hitting two-band combo featuring both the Sweethearts and the Armed Forces Radio Orchestra.


  1. Track: “Tuxedo Junction”
    Year: 1945

Many people think of “Tuxedo Junction” as a Glenn Miller tune from 1940, but although his band made it famous, it was written by Erskine Hawkins for his Savoy Ballroom orchestra in the 1930s.

Forget what you’ve heard from Glenn Miller. This recording by the “buoyant bevy of beautiful babes” (as the radio host describes the Sweethearts) takes the tempo slow, and the arrangement focuses on the lower horns as accompaniment to Jean Starr’s trumpet solo.


  1. Track: “Galvanizing”
    Year: 1945

Maurice King wrote this Basie-style swing number. Although the sound from the radio broadcast isn’t the best, the arrangement shows the even quality among all of the band’s sections. Trumpets pass an idea to the saxophones, who move it along to the trombones, who swing it over to the piano. Meanwhile, the drum acts like the glue for all these disparate parts.

Much as it would be nice to think that an all-female orchestra was valued only on its own merits, the fact of the music industry is that they probably would not have gotten nearly as much exposure and accolades if it had not been wartime. Their work on Armed Forces Radio, such as the source of this track, was central to their success.

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