With the exception of a few lady pianists, Swing Era women sang while the men played; that’s what some less academic, coffee table jazz histories would have you believe. Save for the big-name divas, women have struggled to hold their places in swing history; this despite an often-awesome contribution. Denied positions in ‘male’ big bands, some female players found ‘all-girl’ groups in which to showcase their skills. But here their talents have been much-maligned, their bands are often dismissed as titillating novelty acts or ‘war work’.
The male-staffed big bands made their male leaders famous. Yet, even when a female group did achieve contemporary acclaim, it was often their sex — not their bandleader’s name — which was immortalised (think The Glenn Miller Orchestra, versus The International Sweethearts of Rhythm). Female dancers of the age had it just as tough, with even Ginger Rogers rarely mentioned outside the context of “Fred Astaire and…” So pity poor Neliska Briscoe who, as a nightclub singer, dancer and later bandleader, leaves little trace in the mainstream jazz histories, despite being dubbed “Crescent City Queen”.
Enter musicologist Sherrie Tucker, who has perhaps written more on mid-century jazzwomen than any other scholar. Tucker is also the lead author on fascinating National Park Service paper ‘A Feminist Perspective on New Orleans Jazz Women’: a goldmine of information which served as a key source for this summary of a remarkable yet almost-forgotten life.
Neliska ‘Baby’ Briscoe was born in New Orleans in 1914, the daughter of a fruit-packer called Eddie and a convent cook, also named Neliska. Little Nel’s entry into showbiz came quick: aged seven, mom would often take her to perform at jazz joint and gambling den the Alley Cabaret. Banjo player Danny Barker (who would later play for Cab Calloway, Lucky Millinder and Benny Carter) recalled young Briscoe both singing and dancing at the Alley in 1925, when aged 11. The only child performer in the floor show, she there acquired there the nickname that would stick through her adult career: Baby Briscoe.
The 1930 Census listed Briscoe as 16, married and a professional entertainer. Contemporary newspapers dubbed her “the Sweetheart of New Orleans”, praising her as an acrobatic dancer and a great stage presence. She worked with several bands — including the Four Coeds, Five Joy Clouds and Lil Hardin Armstrong‘s all-female orchestra — at New Orleans cabarets including the Astoria on South Rampart Street (where she appeared regularly in 1931, newspapers record).
She also graced the Entertainer, Owl and Alley Cabarets, according to the ‘Louisiana Weekly’, which noted her move up to New York shortly thereafter. In December of 1931, Briscoe was shot during a mob showdown at a New York nightclub where she was working (possibly Small’s Paradise on 7th Avenue). She spent two weeks bedridden, after which her trail is cold for two years. But resilient Briscoe reappeared in 1933, which is when her career really took off.
Joe Robichaux led a well known six-piece outfit called Joe Robichaux’s Rhythm Boys. When it returned to New Orleans from a stint in New York in 1933 it had grown to a mixed-sex 15-piece featuring trumpeter Ann Cooper, singer Joan Lunceford and “a fine female tapdancer” (Robichaux’s words) named Baby Briscoe.
Photographs show Briscoe and Lunceford in tuxedos (an outfit which Briscoe later made her trademark), conducting and performing before the band. At this point, Tucker notes, Briscoe was a frontwoman; an entertainer distinct from a true bandleader, who would actually rehearse with the players (Robichaux’s job). As with singers, the female role was always eye candy; wanted ads would commonly ask women musicians to send headshots, Tucker notes in her book Swing Shift: All-Girl Bands of the 1940s.
It was in her next engagement that Briscoe would become a real bandleader of renown. The Harlem Playgirls (or Play Girls) were an all-black, all-female big band founded in 1935 by bandleader Sylvester Rice. Popular on the TOBA circuit, the Playgirls were initially fronted by TOBA headliner Edie Crump, whom Briscoe replaced in late 1938. (Some Playgirls members would go on to join the world-famous Sweethearts line-up in 1938; Briscoe’s daughters claimed that their mom also went on to work with the Sweethearts, but Tucker couldn’t confirm this.)
Having battled Johnny Long’s band at the Chicago Savoy, Briscoe led the Playgirls (by now dubbed the “Queens of Swing”) for that year’s Thanksgiving show at Harlem’s Apollo Theater; an extraordinary honor for a female band, as noted by Kristin A McGee in Some Liked It Hot: Jazzwomen in Film and Television 1928-1959. They landed a four-month, 50-date national tour and were described by one breathless, Denver reviewer as “the hottest orchestra that was ever heard here… not only musicians but entertainers of the highest type”.
After long playing at bandleader as a frontwoman, Briscoe had by then learned the role well. The ‘Pittsburgh Courier’ described her as a “versatile and flashy New Orleans bandleader”, with “a great wealth of experience”, noting that “her ability to keep the girls ‘in the groove’ while swinging out with their hot numbers has won her a good reputation”.
Touring nationwide — and with Harlem in their name — the famous Playgirls’ New Orleans performances were nevertheless celebrated as a homecoming by the Southern press. The ‘Louisiana Weekly’ described their gigs as “extremely popular here”, what with “New Orleans’ own sweetheart, Babe [sic] Briscoe, directing 11 artists of swing”. They opened the 1939 Mardi Gras and broke box office records at the Tick Tock Tavern, South Rampart Street, earning Briscoe another honorific moniker: “Crescent City Queen”.
Briscoe abdicated from the post of band director in 1940, after meeting and falling for sailor David Mouton. In 1942 she directed all-female review Bottoms Up (notes McGee), but there her entertainment career ended; right at its apex. She married and briefly became a homemaker, with first daughter Avon born the following year. In 1946, a gas explosion forced Briscoe to jump from a second-story window, while pregnant with second daughter Debra. After studying cosmetology she opened two businesses — a gift shop and a restaurant — whilst also sewing ball gowns for Mardi Gras. With the proceeds she bought dance lessons for Avon and Debra; something her mother had been unable to afford her.
Whether all-female bands were mere titillation or their male counterparts’ equals is still hotly-debated, as Tucker notes (with obvious annoyance) in prefacing ‘Swing Shift’. Judging by contemporaneous critique, it seems Briscoe and the Harlem Playgirls helped push perceptions of jazzwomen into the serious artist category. (Indeed, her import was great enough to make her the poster girl for Tucker’s NPS paper.) Having apparently never played a note, Briscoe took up sax after retiring. She entertained relatives with it until her 80th birthday, when she danced on stage once more. The following day she suddenly fell ill; a diagnosis of bone cancer followed and, four months later, she died.
In the weeks before her passing, Briscoe regaled her nurses with old stories of donning tuxedoes and leading big bands on the stage. In perhaps a sad reflection of women’s relegation to the margins of jazz history, her nurses put these ramblings down to morphine-induced delusions (her daughters told Tucker). They memorialised mom with a scholarship fund at Tulane University, yet relatively little has been written about Briscoe’s work in song, dance and bandleading.
Tucker writes of a “dominant jazz discourse” which keeps the focus on a few great men (the coffee table almanac approach). Besides caricaturing a multi-colored, multi-dimensional artform (Tucker argues), it’s obviously also keeping incredible stories like Neliska ‘Baby’ Briscoe’s out of the history books. So perhaps it’s time to chuck out the jazz canon and start again, writing more women into the spotlights which shone so brightly on them.