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World's 'Fastest Girl Drummer' Is Gone

Viola Smith has died at 107
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 25, 2020 4:30 PM CDT

(Newser) – The "fastest girl drummer in the world" is gone. Viola Smith, a swing musician who fought for female inclusion in the big-band era, died Wednesday at home in Costa Mesa, Calif., the Washington Post reports. She was 107. At a time when jazz giants like Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman dominated the dance-band world, Smith led her own group—the all-female Coquettes—with a 12-drum kit that featured two big tom-toms by her shoulders. The band was best-known for the playful arabesque "The Snake Charmer" with Smith's dramatic drum-frills. She also made waves with a 1942 DownBeat essay called "Give Girl Musicians a Break!" that urged top band leaders to include more women—especially with so many men fighting in World War II.

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"Instead of replacing them with what may be mediocre talent, why not let some of the great girl musicians of the country take their places?" she wrote. "Girls work right along beside men in the factories, in the offices. ... So why not in dance bands?" They mostly didn't, but Smith found steady work in Phil Spitalny's all-girl band—which played in the Abbott & Costello comedy Here Come the Co-Eds—and later in the Kit Kat Band jazz quartet heard in the musical Cabaret on Broadway, per the Guardian. Born in Wisconsin in 1912, Smith lived much of her life on the road, then moved to New York, and later settled in Costa Mesa. She left no immediate survivors. "I really had a charmed life," she told Tom Tom in 2013. "Unless people call drumming work. Then I worked hard in my life." (Read more musician stories.)

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