On a bright November day my wife Laura and I drove the short distance from our home to a store called Piecemakers in Costa Mesa, California. The spelling of the store’s name is a clue to what they sell. The nondescript wooden building–a local institution–sells quilting supplies, among other quaint items and confections you’d expect to find in an old-fashioned, Christian-based country store. Think “potpourri and Laura Ashley,” and you’ll get the idea.
A few months before, TST contributor Lew Shaw informed me he had located the legendary big band and show drummer, Viola Smith, who was about to turn 106 years old. That isn’t a typo: one hundred six years old. She was living in Costa Mesa, and was being looked after by the staff at Piecemakers.
Laura and I walked into Piecemakers with a small bouquet of flowers for Ms. Smith and were promptly and courteously greeted by a mature woman behind a sales counters. I explained I had spoken with a “Deborah” some weeks before, and that Deborah had arranged the interview with Ms. Smith. Off went the woman- to find Deborah.
After just a couple of minutes, Deborah came out of a back room, smiling and escorting a cheerful woman who shuffled toward us using a metal walker for support. Viola Smith, in person!
I was frankly astounded at how well Viola looked. Remarkable, I thought. She looks like a seventy-five-year-old in terrific shape!
We all introduced ourselves, and Viola seemed genuinely appreciative of the flowers. Yet another staff member appeared, and whisked them away, saying she would get them into water. Deborah found us a small table in the back, and Ms. Smith, Laura, and I were seated. It was rather early for night clerks and jazz musicians, and I was trying not to appear too excited when Deborah offered us coffee. I didn’t want to be the first to accept, but after Viola said she’d like some, Laura said, “I think my husband would really appreciate a cup of coffee right now.”
Deborah brought the coffee—a very nice brew, incidentally—and excused herself. After I thanked Ms. Smith for consenting to see us, she began to explain the walker she had used.
“I fell down a couple of months ago,” she began. “I hadn’t needed one of these things for my entire life, up until that fall.” She seemed kind of angry about it. “The doctor said the way things are, I’ll need this from now on.” She gave us a what are you gonna do? kind of a shrug and sipped her coffee.
I sat there thinking that if by some miracle I’m still around to see the age of one hundred six, I’ll be on a stretcher with a team of friends carrying me if I ever want to go someplace. Or on a gurney, being pushed around town by Team Barrett. But just needing to use that metal walker really bugged Ms. Smith. That’s what they used to call “feisty!”
Ms. Smith — whom I eventually was able to call “Viola” — was dressed in smart black slacks; a black top with a green and blue wild-animal pattern; and a perfectly-coördinated cornflower-blue beaded sweater. Her silver hair was straight and fell to the base of her neck. A pair of stylish eyeglasses completed her chic look. Viola wore just a little carefully-applied makeup, and, as I said, looked great.
Before we get into the interview, here’s a bit of biographical information:
Viola Schmitz was born on November 29, 1912 in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin. She was one of ten children, having had two brothers and seven sisters. They all studied piano, and in the 1920s their father formed the Smith Sisters Orchestra (nee’ “Schmitz Sisters family Orchestra”). This group performed on the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) circuit, playing in vaudeville and movie theaters while juggling their school schedules.
Voila got her first big break when the band (along with her nephew, Dennis Bartash), performed on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, the 1930s radio version of America’s Got Talent. With the help of the popularity gained by that broadcast, in 1938 Viola and her sister Mildred (a saxophonist) were able to start an all-girl orchestra called the Coquettes, with which they performed until 1942, when Mildred got married.
Viola moved to New York City where she received a summer scholarship to the Julliard School Of Music. Soon after, she joined Phil Spitalny’s Hour Of Charm Orchestra, perhaps the most famous “all-girl” orchestra in the country. Her ability to read music fluently, coupled with her overall musicianship was such that she later played with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, one of the leading orchestras of the day.
Viola makes a convincing argument that the great drummer Louis Bellson began famously using two bass drums after having seen her perform in the ‘30s with her own “signature” twin sixteen-inch tom-toms, mounted on either side of her, at shoulder height. (You can see Viola in action, using those tom-toms to good advantage, with Francis Carroll and the Coquettes in an exciting film clip from 1939 a little farther down the page.)
Viola performed for President Harry Truman’s inauguration in 1949. After the Hour Of Charm Orchestra disbanded in 1954, Viola led her own band, “Viola and Her Seventeen Drums.” A decade later—from 1966 to 1970—she was on Broadway with the “Kit-Kat Band.” This was the band featured in the original production of Cabaret.
Viola’s most recent performances were with a Costa Mesa-based group called the “Forever Young Band.”
I turned on a small digital recorder, and we got down to business. Below are excerpts of Laura’s and my special time spent with Viola Smith. After some preliminary comments, Viola surprised me by telling me how unhealthy she thought it was to play a brass instrument!
VS: I was very fortunate, for by the time the sixth girl was placed in the (family) orchestra, it was the drummer! Boy, was that a break for me, because…had I been the trumpet player or trombone player, can you imagine? I would not have lasted long.
I then told Viola about an issue of The Syncopated Times which featured Bria Skonberg, the talented young lady who sings and plays trumpet.
VS: It’s just unfortunate, for it’s just not good for a girl to play…night after night, (to be) a trumpet player or trombone player.
Viola cited a sister who played the trumpet, and passed away at thirty-three. Viola made clear that she did not think a woman’s physiology could withstand the stress of constant brass playing.
DB: Huh…that’s interesting. So, you think the drums might have been a little healthier for you?
VS: Oh, well! It certainly was! It is very healthful; all that exercise…and I had tom-toms up here (Viola raised her arms to above shoulder-level). I’m the one who started that. Nobody—nobody ever copied me after all those years. You’d think they would, because there is very much “showmanship” there.
We discussed the movie she made with the Coquettes, featuring her playing a terrific drum solo on the Sing, Sing, Sing-styled piece called Snake Charmer. By then, Viola and one sister were the only two siblings remaining in the Coquettes. We talked about what happened after that.
VS: Finally, when (my sister) got married, then I had the wonderful “out” of getting to New York, where I always wanted to be. I had been in Wisconsin, where I was born. So, when she got married, the next day I was off to New York!
Viola remembered that she got to New York in 1942.
DB: So things were jumping then…
VS: Yeah, it was at the time when 52nd Street was at the height of popularity.
DB: I had that written down; I wanted to ask you about that. Do you remember some of the bands you heard?
DB: Wow! (I said “Wow!” a lot during this interview).
VS: Woody Herman…he asked me to join him, by the way.
DB: That’s what we’d heard…
VS: My sister and I still had the Coquettes orchestra. He heard us, and asked me to join his orchestra. He said even if I couldn’t join as his regular drummer, maybe I could join as a “visiting soloist.” But there was too much confusion in my life, having an orchestra at that time, and then to also do something on the “outside” with Woody Herman. So…
DB: To me, that speaks well for Mr. Herman. Just like Benny Goodman was using black players when it wasn’t really the norm, for Mr. Herman to ask you to join his band…that was forward-thinking of him.
VS: And then he got Billie…Billie…um…
VS: Billie Rogers! Billie Rogers came in (on trumpet). Yes, she was a big success in that band.
I mentioned that I had the opportunity of playing with Mr. Herman at Carnegie Hall, with the New York Pops Orchestra. Viola took it in stride.
VS: Oh, yes. They (the Pops Orchestra) were there a lot. ‘Cause we played Carnegie Hall quite a bit. So I knew what was going on in there, and I know the Pops Orchestra was there so much at the time.
I asked Viola about Gene Krupa, whom she cited as one of her influences.
VS: He was a lovely person, compared with Buddy Rich! Buddy Rich—I couldn’t say anything against a dead man, but Buddy…his musicians didn’t go for Buddy so much. See, he was hard to deal with. I met him. That’s all; I met him. And I’m just saying what I heard from the musicians who were in his band. So, he couldn’t compare with Gene Krupa, because Gene Krupa was just the exact opposite. He was such a fine person. What a shame that he died so early in his life.
Note: Gene Krupa died at the age of sixty-four. I suppose when one is one hundred six years old, that’s still “early” in one’s life!
DB: Did you consciously absorb any of his style or technique?
VS: I hope so! Unconsciously, I suppose.
DB: What were some of the things he did technically that you remember, that you employed in your own playing?
VS: It’s hard to describe it. Hard to describe it.
DB: You mentioned Louis Bellson.
VS: Oh, Bellson! Louis Bellson came to see me three times while I was working. He surprised me. I was flattered.
DB: I thought it was an interesting point you made, that he was watching you play, and soon after that, he didn’t have the suspended toms, but he had two bass drums.
VS: That’s why he came so often: he had to figure out how to get those sounds out of two bass drums! Instead of the high-hat, he’d be playing both bass drums.
I told Viola that I got to play with Mr. Bellson while I was a member of Benny Goodman’s last band.
VS: Oh, you did? He (Bellson) was such a nice guy. People loved him. All the musicians loved him.
DB: you mentioned you heard the Count Basie band. Do you have any recollections about Jo Jones?
VS: Oh, Jo Jones! He was a friend of mine. He was around, and I got to be friendly with him. But I can’t say I played with him or anything like that. No, no.
DB: Uh-huh. A young drummer—Josh Collazo—asked me to greet you, even though you don’t know him. Josh is in his early ‘30s. His hero is Gene Krupa.
VS: (warmly) Oh…
DB: I just worked with him a couple nights ago. He’s a brilliant young drummer here in the Los Angeles area. He said that he had read or heard that you had worked with Ella Fitzgerald—
VS: Oh, yes!
DB: –in Chick Webb’s band—
VS: (very enthusiastically), I—the Paradise Theater—had a “Night Of Stars.” Note: Viola initially said the “Paradise” Theater, but later corrected herself and said the “Paramount” Theater.
So, they had: Chick Webb; Ella Fitzgerald; the Boswell Sisters. This goes back to the Boswell Sisters! Although the Boswell Sisters by that time had broken up. But one girl—one of the Boswell Sisters—made an appearance…This was (with) Bob Crosby’s Orchestra. Chick Webb was one of the headliners.
DB: So, Mr. Webb was still around, and still playing…
VS: Oh, he was there! This was at the Paramount Theater, but I don’t know the year. I don’t know what age…
DB: I think he died in about ’39 or so… (Webb died June 16, 1939—DB.)
So, it would have been before that…amazing…So, I’m sorry…with which band were you performing?
VS: Well, I was with Bob Crosby’s Orchestra for the evening…I sat in, but there were a lot of stars. One of the Andrews Sisters—Maxine was there.
DB: What a night!
I had assumed that Chick Webb’s band was on the bill that night. Viola made it clear that Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Webb, and the others—including Viola–were guests that evening with Bob Crosby’s band.
DB: So, you got to know Ray Bauduc (drummer with Bob Crosby’s band) I guess?
VS: Oh, Ray Bauduc! I saw him often.
DB: What kind of guy was he?
VS: Very nice! Krupa and Bauduc. But don’t ask me about Buddy Rich! I have nothing against Buddy Rich, personally.
DB: (laughing) We don’t have to talk about Buddy today.
VS: I think everybody else (weighs) in on Buddy Rich, so I won’t say a word about him. As a matter of fact, I have nothing against him personally. I met him a few times. You know…
DB: Well, we’re all different.
VS: I finished the book (inaudible). His book. Very interesting book; you should read it. I was so interested in it.
DB: I haven’t read it…
VS: Oh, it’s so interesting. Not just because of Buddy, but the whole thing. The story of his life. Everything he was interested in, I was interested in. It was a good book to read.
DB: You mentioned “The Night Of Stars.” Are there any other concerts or shows or jam sessions that stand out as highlights?
VS: This (“The Night Of Stars”) would be a highlight. There were so many stars; I can’t think of them all now.
DB: Any gigs you played that stand out in your memory? When people ask me that, I can’t come up with them. So, don’t worry about it. They all kind of meld together, don’t they?
VS: Ha, ha, ha.
I was scratching around in what’s left of my mind for another reasonable question, when Laura came to my rescue:
Laura Barrett: May I ask her a question?
LB, to Viola: Do you (know) any women musicians that you think should have more acclaim? That people should know about nowadays?
VS: I’m too far out of the swing of things now.
LB: No, I don’t mean people now, Viola. In the past.
VS: Oh, ‘way back…’way back…Well, in the Down Beat magazine…Did you ever see that magazine, where I wrote the article with all the girl musicians I mentioned?
DB: Yes, ma’am. (During the Second World War, Viola wrote an essay for Down Beat magazine titled, “Give Girl Musicians A Break!”, in which she suggested that bands who lost musicians (men) to the draft replace them with female players. So, Viola was a champion for Women’s Rights as far back as the early ‘40s).
VS: Those (the women mentioned in her Down Beat article) were the top musicians—girl musicians—of the day. So, outside of that, I’ve been…I’ve been out of it.
Laura mentioned the late Laurie Frink, a marvelous person and great lead trumpet player who had played for Benny Goodman during the last months of his band. Viola had not heard of Laurie. We went on, and I asked Viola if she had ever been to Europe in her travels.
VS: In my working years, I didn’t work anyplace outside of America. But (after that) I did a lot of traveling. For two years I went to Europe and all these countries, as far as Asia. I went to, uh, Monte Carlo… (here Viola paused) …as far as Monte Carlo and Asia. And Africa!
DB: Did you encounter any European musicians you’d like to talk about, or…?
VS: Oh, I didn’t have time for the musicians when I traveled. For one thing, I stayed at all the best hotels, ‘cause I was told to by my lawyer. I was traveling alone, and no girl—well, I would stop at the best hotels, and I couldn’t have any girlfriend…(just) one girlfriend would have paid the money I paid for my trips.
DB: I see.
VS: Best hotels. Only one I knew…but she had just made that trip! But I started out (alone), which I was very unhappy about, because she would have been the perfect person to have along. Well…I started out alone, and I continued for two years! Two different trips. To Europe, and other (places). Two different years. One time, I stayed in Europe for three months. Like at Cannes: I was there for ten days; Paris, about ten days. A lot of the places were very interesting, so pretty soon, the three months would be up.
DB: But just sight-seeing; not to play or perform?
VS: Not to perform. Oh, Heaven forbid! Don’t mention the word “drumming!” Nobody knew I was a drummer. Ha, ha. I was “first class!” I couldn’t talk about being a “musician.”
We got back from Europe, and Viola talked about a tragedy in her life. She had known a man who was killed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Then she spoke about another man she had known, who nearly became her husband.
VS: 1942 was when my Dad died, and a man (to whom) I was engaged to be married was whisked away the night before. He knew he was going to—all the boys who went overseas were stationed in New York, waiting. They never knew when they would be shipped off. And he was one of those, you see?
VS: He was in New York just temporarily, but I had gotten engaged before that. Some other place outside of New York.
DB: I see.
VS: But he—he came back! He came back after three years. By that time, I don’t know whether he had anybody else in his mind; I never found out, because we went out. I told him then I was going to marry the lawyer I was going with. So, we just saw each other a few nights. But it was all over. So he decided to go to Miami. He took a group to the best hotel in Miami. He (led) the relief group at this big hotel in Miami. (Here Viola mentions his name, but it was unclear, and I didn’t ask her to clarify. It sounded like, “Bob Borough.”)
In the war, he was the conductor of a band. He was that fine a musician.
DB: This is fascinating, you know? Very interesting to me. I turned to Laura. Isn’t this something?
LB: Yes, it is. It’s interesting–as a woman, to me—that you have stuck with what you loved the most, and were able to have a wonderful career with that.
VS: Oh, yes. Lucky! Lucky, it’s true. That I loved to play drums, and I could make money playing drums, you know.
I’d promised my son Andrew—who is a very good ragtime pianist, and interested in early American jazz—that I would ask Viola if she had ever met the drummers Stan King or Clifford “Snags” Jones. (Hey, you never know!)
Viola had heard of Stan King, but hadn’t met or heard him. When I mentioned “a black drummer named ‘Snags’ Jones,” she momentarily confused him with Jo Jones, about whom we’d been talking earlier. Then she went on with another interesting recollection.
VS: There was a black drummer… (she paused, remembering). We used to practice together, in Madison, Wisconsin, on the Capital steps. He and I practiced our rudiments! Sitting on the steps, and people would gather ‘round, and watch us.
DB: I would, too!
VS: Ha, ha! We’d go through all the rudiments. He just had his drum sticks. And it was interesting, just the SOUND of it; two drummers…
At this point, I asked Viola about the use of drum “mufflers.” These are devices that drummers clamped onto their bass drums, to deaden the resonance and volume. Viola had no opinion on them, and claimed never to have used them, or paid attention to them. I asked if she ever “did anything special” to the drums for recording sessions.
VS: One time, I was playing Ravel’s Bolero, and I put a handkerchief on the snare drum, and played on top of that. (Viola demonstrated with her hands, playing very softly and keeping noticeably perfect time on the table in front of Laura and me).
VS: Nobody could hear it except the orchestra! And then I’d get away from the handkerchief and get louder and louder and louder. And that’s a long piece, Ravel’s Bolero! And by the time it was over, it was so loud that you almost had to have (earplugs) for it. And it was a big success. We started the show…it was with Phil Spitalny. I was with Phil Spitalny for thirteen years. He was the best girl band in the country.
DB: Was he a decent guy to work for?
VS: He was tough. He was unreasonable, in a way. He would jump to conclusions. Sometimes, the girls would go out, and he didn’t want anybody to go out, to date anyone! And we always had to sneak, see? Because he didn’t want us to date. Because we were on the road, so he knew there were strangers we were dating.
VS: So, we would sneak out.
DB: Well, it sounds like he was protective.
VS: He was protective.
DB: God bless him!
VS: He was protective. That was OK, you know. But we all snuck out!
DB & VS: (laughter)
DB: Well, shame on you, Viola!
DB & VS: (More laughter).
VS: One time, I was responsible for the dates of three girls. (There were) three Harvard musicians. So, my musician friend was from Harvard, and he had two friends. He said, “Let’s have (all of us) go out.” I said, “Sure!” Never mind Phil Spitalny! So, I did it. And of course, Phil Spitalny found out. He called me backstage to talk about this; about why I’d go out with these strangers.
I said, well, these were Harvard men, and when do we girls get a chance to go out with three Harvard men?
DB: Good point.
VS: I really talked back to him! About the importance of going out with nice young men; men that had respectable backgrounds, rather than—on the road—with any Joe…date any Joe…
DB: Right, right.
VS: Well, he (Spitalny) calmed down.
DB: I’m glad. Good. Well, it sounds like you had a great life in the music business.
VS: I was lucky enough, and healthy enough. I have never missed a date in my whole career!
LB: Oh, my goodness!
VS: Since age thirteen. I’ve never missed a show, or anything. I always was right on the dot. Never was sick.
LB: That’s wonderful!
VS: I actually never was sick. It was good for me; I always had very good health.
DB: Aside from playing the drums, and the health benefits, what do you attribute that to, your longevity and your health? Did you ever smoke?
VS: For a short time, but I didn’t even inhale then! But I quickly gave it up when I heard it was so bad for your health.
DB: Not to get personal, but did you drink?
VS: Oh, yes. I’m a drinker, but definitely always in… uh…
VS: Definitely always in moderation. Even Dad: he had a tavern in his nightclub in Wisconsin. He’d even bring kids in the family wine. So, we’d have wine (with) dinner. I still drink wine now.
I was in a plane with a man who sold liquor next to me. He said the people who drink wine extend their lives by three years, by drinking wine every day. Not in excess! I was very happy to hear that!
DB: White or red?
VS: Red! Red wine is better for you than white wine. But white wine is also good for you. So, I always drink a glass of wine. But just one glass. It used to be two. But now it’s one.
DB: Do you have any special diet?
VS: I’ve always had a very good appetite. No, no special diet.
DB: Are you a spiritual person, Viola?
VS: Not spiritual. I was brought up a very strong Catholic, and I remained a good Catholic into my playing years. But after a few years, I got farther and farther away from it. Religion. Same as my sister. She was also a good Catholic. We were still in the orchestra when we both skipped Sunday masses because we were working Saturday nights. We always had a good excuse, you know? “Dear God, we have a good excuse!”
DB & VS: (Laughter)
VS: “We worked late last night!”
DB & VS: (More laughter)
LB: I have a question. When you were younger, and you were in (the band) with your sisters and all, how did you go to school and work in the band?
VS: Always only summer months. We only worked—for years—except I went to high school, yes. But in college, I took a lot of college course, by—what do you call ‘em—extension courses. I took a lot of courses.
VS: That was after high school. But even in high school…a lot of times, we missed high school. Actually we did all our bookings around summer vacation.
And yet, there were times when it couldn’t be worked out then, so…
DB: Did your father book the band for you? Or?
VS: In the early days, he did. But later on, we were traveling with groups. For a long time, pit bands! We were always in a show. I’d mix with the pit band drummer. I’d either take lessons from him, or…I was very much into all these pit band drummers all over the country. Well, we always played theaters one week at a time. That was staggered. The shows were all—
DB: You read music very well.
VS: Well, yes. I was—we were all pianists. The whole family was. By the time you got through with all the piano playing, you certainly read the music!
I told Viola that the ability to read music made our son Andrew valuable in his high school band, because he was one of the few drummers who could read music.
VS: Oh, yeah, (you must know how to read music) if you want to get anywhere!
DB: He played the chimes, and the xylophone…
VS: I played the xylophone too!
DB: Did you? We haven’t talked about that.
VS: And the tympani. I had a scholarship to Julliard (The Julliard School Of Music in Manhattan). And the tympanist in the Julliard Orchestra—I can’t remember his name; sometimes I do—
DB: That’s all right.
VS: He was considered the best teacher in the country for tympani. He and the tympanist for the National Orchestra (Viola meant the NBC Orchestra) with Toscanini. Toscanini was conducting. In fact, I saw a rehearsal! I was studying with his drummer.
DB: I see.
VS: I studied tympani with his drummer. And I was with the Julliard Orchestra for the summer months. (So I began studying with) the other tympanist; the Julliard tympanist; also a “big name.” So, I studied with the two best tympanists in the country!
DB: Wonderful! That’s really something!
VS: Yes, But I was only backstage once when Toscanini was conducting, when I had to see the drummer about something. We were on the eighth floor of the NBC building. (I think Viola was speaking of when she was still with Phil Spitalny’s band, in the NBC building, as the same time as Toscanini and the NBC Orchestra). We would have our little time off, on one side of the eighth floor, and they were on the other side, practicing or playing. So we would go listen to their practice session. And one time, he (Toscanini) came in, and he left a message that he liked the orchestra, and that the musicians were “very fine.” He wrote a message like that.
DB: Wow! (Again). That’s great!
VS: Some of the girls made copies of it. I didn’t have a copy of it.
DB: Do you have any specific memories about Toscanini?
VS: Not personally.
VS: I saw them perform; Mildred Bailey…
DB: …And who were your favorite female singers?
VS: Oh, Billie Holiday!
DB: Oh, you liked Billie! Good! (I couldn’t help my response. I like Billie, too!)
VS: One time I saw Billie. She was playing in a small little club on 52nd Street, the street with all the little clubs. And it was so jammed, they put a little table and two chairs right next to the stage. Well, Billie Holiday was singing here (Viola pointed to the table top in front of us), and I was sitting here (she then pointed to her chair), with (my) well-coiffed hair, and her dress was bouffant, and swinging all over my hair! I was constantly putting my hair back in place, and I didn’t like that at all! I kept trying to move away from her…and I was so annoyed with that!
VS: It was still a joy looking up and seeing her singing. Straight up, she was. You know, her feet were like this from me…
DB: Wow. (A low-key “wow” this time).
VS: But the places were all jammed. Fifty-Second Street. Places all jammed!
DB: Did you ever sing?
VS: Oh, I have a lousy voice. I don’t have a singing voice at all. My sister—my sisters could sing; all of them! We auditioned for the choir in Mt. Calvary, Wisconsin where we were born, and there was a choir and Sister Cotallia (?), and one by one, we had to audition to sing with the choir. So, the three above me had to audition (presumably, Viola meant her three older sisters), and when it came to me, she said, “Oh, I know your sisters. You don’t have to audition.”
See, the three of them had passed. And I—I wouldn’t have passed. Not at all! I’d made up my mind, I wasn’t willing to bother. I’d made up my mind: I’m not gonna be in the choir. Turns out I was in the choir all those years. I sang very softly!
DB: So, you mentioned Billie Holiday. Who were your favorite male vocalists?
VS: I would say Bing Crosby. Not Bing Crosby! Well, I like Bing Crosby very much, but Bing and maybe…Sinatra. ‘Cause I knew Sinatra.
DB: Oh, you did!
VS: Oh, in fact; wait a minute; Sinatra! It’s been printed quite a bit that I’ve been out with Sinatra. All the orchestras in New York had their “night lunches,” where they all wanted ribs. They’d go to a ribs place. So, it turns out, I got to this ribs place, and each table had eight people. So I met Frank Sinatra, because he was at the same table as me.
So, he asked me for a date. I didn’t actually go for a date, but I—I saw him. He was working every night; I was working very night. It was really hard to date. But we would meet.
At this point, Viola obviously was trying hard to recall an anecdote about Frank Sinatra, but unfortunately for all of us, it simply didn’t come to her at that time.
Viola told us the musicians would gather at the rib joint around one in the morning, for that’s when most of the bands in New York City finished playing back then. The musicians would all sit at the different tables with members of different bands, which is how Viola wound up meeting Sinatra.
I asked Viola who her favorite tenor sax player was. Her response may surprise you. It did me:
VS: I like tenor sax. It’s one of my favorite instruments. Ben Webster.
I asked Viola if she knew any of the guys in Duke Ellington’s band.
VS: Oh, I met guys in all the bands. Somehow or other, you’d meet. Like, when we played the Inaugural Ball (for President Harry S Truman).
DB: Do you have any favorite trumpet or trombone players?
VS: What instrument do you play?
DB: I play both the trumpet and trombone.
VS: Oh, yes, I love trumpet and trombone players!
DB: You’re charming.
I mentioned Harry James and Bunny Berigan. Viola had met Harry James. Berigan was from Wisconsin, and although Viola had never met him, she knew musicians in her area who had known and played with him before he left for his ultimately sad destiny.
I brought up the name of Joe Bushkin, with whom I’d worked and recorded when Laura and I were in New York. Viola had heard of Joe, and said he was a “big name,” but had no stories about him to offer. I asked about two of my heroes on the trombone with whom Viola may have crossed paths: Tommy Dorsey and Jack Teagarden. She had met Dorsey and remembered Teagarden, whim she did not know. We were winding down or time together.
DB: I know when I leave here, I’ll think of another two hundred questions…
VS: Well, I’ll be around! I’ll be around here, you know. Anytime!
DB: That’s very kind of you. Again, I’ll ask you (if there’s) anything you’d like to add, for people reading this paper, about yourself, or—have we pretty much covered it?
Viola sat quietly, thinking.
DB: Any advice you want to give young, aspiring drummers?
VS: Become drummers! Don’t become trumpet players, or trombone players!
Become drummers! Drummers or guitar players! Any instrument without…blowers!
DB: The world needs good drummers, that’s for sure! And, you’re one of them.
Viola reiterated her opinion that women (she said, “girls”) shouldn’t play brass instruments, reminding us that two of her sisters—one a trumpet player, one a trombonist—both died at an early age. She softened her opinion when she admitted the trombonist died while giving birth, so playing the horn couldn’t directly be blamed.
DB: Well, Viola, thank you very much.
VS: Well, thank you! You’re the one who should be thanked; not me.
DB: As I said when I met you, I’m honored to know you and to meet you, and to spend some time with you.
Viola responded most graciously. I promised her I’d bring an issue of TST when it came out with this interview. Laura and I wished her a happy birthday a few days early. Viola’s birthday is November 29; we met with her on Nov 23, 2018).
I asked Viola a couple of final questions:
DB: Do you ever pick up sticks at all? Do you have a practice pad?
VS: Well, I’ll tell you. A few years ago, the girl drummer (of a local band) was asked to play a drum roll one night, on the job. The (bandleader) asked for a drum roll, (before) an announcement. And she just stood there. I asked her, “Why didn’t you play it?” She said, “I don’t KNOW a drum roll!”
She hadn’t really taken legitimate lessons. She’d just picked up drumming. So, I gave her lessons, for a period of about a year, right here at this place.
Viola confessed that her student wasn’t making the progress Viola had hoped she would, but thanks to Viola’s tutelage, she can at least play a passable drum roll now.
I took a photo of Viola with her flowers. We said goodbye to Deborah, and thanked her again for facilitating the interview, and Laura and I left Piecemakers, with the memory of having met and gotten to know a most remarkable woman: Viola Smith.
Author’s Note: I would like to thank Deborah at Piecemakers Country Store for her help in facilitating the interview with Viola. Thanks too to the courteous and efficient staff at Piecemakers. You made Laura and I feel welcome. We appreciate that.