Viola Smith was born in 1912, into a family that included seven sisters. Their father, who ran a dance hall, taught each sister to play a different musical instrument so he could have a house band without paying musicians. Viola was assigned to play drums, which she delighted in. When her sisters, and then later bandmates, got married and left music, Viola kept on drumming.
A quick internet search told me Viola is considered the first professional female jazz drummer and one of the oldest renown living jazz musicians. In 1939, she was widely dubbed “The Fastest Girl Drummer.” In the following years, she received endorsement deals with Ludwig, WFL Drum Company, and Zildjian. Viola cut her teeth playing with the jazz drummer Billy Gladstone at Radio City Music Hall and went on to drum in Broadway’s original 1966 run of Cabaret.
Now 107 years old, Viola Smith is part of the Piecemaker community of Costa Mesa, California. Writer Emma Starer Gross wanted to find out more.
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I found this all baffling. How did a Midwestern-raised New York City drummer wind up in a conservative Southern California suburb with a gang of law-breaking, Jesus-loving arts and crafters?