By Tonya Bolden
While big band jazz ruled the hit parade during the 1940’s, it was a difficult period for bandleaders. Shortages complicated tours, the draft depleted band ranks, and the rise of independent vocalist foreshadowed long term trouble. However, the WWII years were a brief window of opportunity for women musicians, as Tonya Bolden chronicles in her book for young readers, Take-Off.
While students should also be taught about innovators like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker (to name just a few), Tafe-Off gives them a readable, illustrated history of some of the underappreciated all-female orchestras of the era. Figures under examination includes: Ina Ray Hutton, Ada Leonard, Valaida Snow, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the Prairie View State College Co-eds, and Clora Bryant.
Throughout there are extracts from contemporary press accounts, like ex-pat bandleader Snow’s harrowing experience in a National Socialist camp from Metronome magazine. According to the jazz publication:
“Snow brought a fantastic and grim tale of eighteen months in a Nazi concentration camp where for the last six months the prisoners were lashed daily and given nothing but three boiled potatoes a day to eat.” (p. 22)
Bolden throws in some telling incidents, like the Nevada Journal’s account of band-leader Sharon Rogers’ plane crash off the Japanese coast, while on-tour for the troops:
“Rogers, the all-girl band leader who scolded American soldiers for fraternizing with Japanese girls, and 16 members of her troupe were rescued early today by Japanese fishermen after their army C-47 crashed into the sea of Kyushu.” (p. 52)
Making this chapter of American musical history accessible to students is a valuable literary endeavor in itself. The book is attractively designed, with many vintage photos that would interest jazz fans of a more advanced age, as well. The book also comes with a CD, which includes selections of Hutton, Snow, and the Sweethearts of Rhythm, that is a substantial value-added bonus. However, the relentless use of hipster lingo is just a tad overdone. Also, at the surprising risk of sounding overly PC, the constant use of “girl” and “gal” to refer to the women musicians also seemed like an unnecessary nod the vernacular of the era. That said, it is refreshing to see many of these bandleaders get their due.