Viola Smith is 107 years old. She was born in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin, in 1912, almost a full decade before women in America won the right to vote.
A pioneering female drummer who banged down barriers for women in music at a time when they were mostly seen as a novelty, she landed on the cover of Billboard magazine in 1940 and even performed at President Harry Truman’s inauguration. And yet, her name is virtually unknown.
About a year ago, I came across Viola Smith on a music blog list of great female drummers. I knew a handful of names — Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground and Karen Carpenter of The Carpenters — but Viola’s was one I didn’t recognize.
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. And, I learned, she lived in Costa Mesa, California, just an hour-and-a-half away from my apartment in Los Angeles.
I asked a few friends who like to brag about their knowledge of music trivia whether they had heard of Viola. None had. I decided I wanted to try and meet her, if only to get her stories on tape. It’s not every day you hear of a 107-year-old, nevermind that she is one of the most significant female jazz drummers in American history. I reached out to a journalist who had spoken to Viola a couple of years back as part of an oral history project called Women of Rock. She informed me Viola was living with a community called The Piecemakers. The Piecemakers, I later learned, was an insular Christian sect comprised primarily of elderly women quilters. The Piecemakers drew headlines in 2005 when several of them were arrested for allegedly attempting to block health inspectors from inspecting their country store. (They’d been preparing soup and other foods without a permit, according to a 2005 Orange County Register article. The article estimated the business brought in about $3 million in revenue a year.)
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? I had questions for Viola that no Internet search could answer, no matter how much I scoured music industry trade mags and the Piecemakers’ website, which, by the looks of it, has been unchanged since 1997. And so I drove the 50 miles from Los Angeles to Costa Mesa to meet Viola.
Piecemakers Country Store is housed in a large craftsman-style building, which stands in contrast to the 24-Hour Fitness across the street and a third-wave coffee shop around the corner. The inside of Piecemakers looks like my great-aunt’s living room if it exploded. It is covered nearly wall-to-wall with yarn, ribbons, thimbles, and porcelain dolls, dessert plates featuring anthropomorphized cats, and display cases of pies.
My meeting with Viola has been arranged by a Piecemaker named Deborah, a woman in her seventies who acts as a sort of press person for Viola. (But by the looks of my Internet search, she only gets such requests every couple of years). I asked her how she came about the job. She said she couldn’t really remember. Viola had been living with the Piecemakers since her 99th birthday, Deborah told me. Viola had moved to Costa Mesa from New York City at the invitation of her cousin, Marie Kolasinksi.
Kolasinksi, who has since passed away, founded The Piecemakers in 1978, after God spoke to her as she was walking by her swimming pool, she once told NBC News. Before long, she had become infamous among Piecemakers and law enforcement alike: She served jail time in 2007, at the age of 85, due to the health inspection incident, after “ wrestling with police officers and unleashing a barrage of profanity so extreme that one officer asked Kolasinski: ‘Do you kiss your kids with that mouth?’” NBC News reported.
As I wait for Viola to emerge, I try to picture what it will be like to interface with a 107-year-old. My grandmother is 80, and I don’t know whether even she would be able to fathom what a woman nearly three decades older would look or sound like. But then, out walks Viola in a navy blouse, pink scarf, and sharp rectangular glasses. She grins at me and says “Pleasure to meet you.”
Viola uses a walker, but operates it effortlessly, and I walk quickly to match her pace as she leads us to a back room. We settle in at a table and Viola spreads out photographs. “Would you like any tea?” She asks. “You can share mine if you want some. So, what would you like to know?”
For the next couple of hours, Viola tells me about her life. Shortly into our conversation, however, something jarring happens. “I was walking the dog who lives with us,” Viola says, explaining how she’d recently broken her hip while walking the dog. “She’s a cocker spaniel named Tanya.” At that moment, a Piecemaker named Jean peeks her head into the room to check on us. “We were just talking about your dog,” I told her. “Tanya the cocker spaniel.” Jean looks confused. “Tanya died years ago. Viola broke her hip walking Lucy. She’s a Yorkshire terrier.”
I realize Viola’s memory might not be so great. She mostly tells the same stories over and over again. As we continue talking, it becomes clear that these are the memories Viola is clinging to, the ones she is working hardest to preserve in her mind. They are not memories of drumming, nor are they memories of her career achievements — the magazine covers and drum company endorsements. Instead, they are recollections of the three groups of women who have defined Viola’s life.
I. THE SCHMITZ SISTERS
Viola grew up in a family of nine children, seven of whom were girls. Her father ran a dance hall, and, to save money, he trained each of his daughters in a specific instrument so he could have an in-house orchestra. The fact that it was an all-female orchestra made it a bit of a novelty, and a savvy business move, Viola thinks. Her eldest sister Irene was the first daughter initiated; she played the trombone. Then came Erma on the vibraphone, and Edwina on the trumpet. Lila on the saxophone came next, followed by Mildred on the violin and Sally on the bass saxophone. Viola was the sixth to join when she was 13 years old in 1925. “It was decided that I would be the drummer,” she says. “And I was just thrilled.”
On weekends and in the summer months, the Schmitz Sisters, as they were known back then, went on tour. (Their last name was later changed to Smith. When I asked Viola the reason why, her only response was, “Because Smith just sounds better.”) The sisters played weddings and parties, vaudeville circuits and movie theaters. They were always the only all-female band. “We’d tell people, ‘Believe it or not, we’re all sisters,” Viola says. “Nobody ever believed it.” Viola laughs until she starts coughing. She takes a sip of tea.
I ask if they ever fought. At first Viola shakes her head no. But then she sticks her finger in the air. “There was one time I remember one of my sisters wanted to have the final bites of whipped cream, at the bottom of the bowl. She was working on getting it out with her spoon and another one of my sisters said, “Oh, give me some.” So she put her finger in over the spoon. Pretty soon the two of them were fighting over this bowl of whipped cream.” Viola pauses for a moment, smiling nostalgically. “I’ll tell you,” she says. “I think I’m the luckiest person in the world to have grown up with those sisters.”
There’s a reason you’ve probably never heard of The Schmitz Sisters. As the years passed, one by one, the Schmitz sisters got married. They moved on as wives and mothers. By 1938, Viola and her sister Mildred, the clarinetist, were the only Schmitz sisters still performing. They started a new, all-female orchestra called The Coquettes, with a handful of musicians they had gotten to know over the years. It was The Coquettes that would launch Viola into the national spotlight.
There’s a black and white short of The Coquettes originally released in 1939. In the clip, Viola is seated on a raised platform, framed by her signature drum set-up: two tom-toms turned on their sides and raised up to her ears. When I asked her about this peculiar configuration, she clarifies that it wasn’t for any particular sonic quality, but simply for spectacle. “I thought of this myself,” Viola says. “No other drummer ever copied me, which always amazed me. Because this is where showmanship comes in, when you’re throwing your arms up by your head, whirling your hand back and forth.”
But then, in 1941, Mildred got married, and, as Viola says, “the war happened.” Viola had briefly been engaged before the war, but her fiancé was drafted and shipped off almost immediately thereafter. “By the time he came back, we had both cooled off. He moved to Miami. And I was glad to get rid of him because I wasn’t about to go through the motions of being his wife.”
In 1942, Viola set out for the first time on her own, moving to an apartment on East 58th Street, on the border of Midtown and the Upper East Side, where she’d live for the next 70 years. I was curious whether Viola was lonely during those first few months in Manhattan, whether she missed her sisters. And I wanted to know how she felt, watching them retire from music in favor of fulfilling the gender expectations of the time: getting married, serving men, caring for children. When I bring this up, Viola doesn’t answer my questions. Instead, she responds by telling me about an article she had written for DownBeat Magazine when she first moved to New York.
The op-ed was titled “Give Girl Musicians a Break!” At the time, orchestras in New York had lost dozens of players to the draft and were desperately seeking musicians to fill in. In her op-ed, Viola argues, “In these times of national emergency, many of the star instrumentalists of the big name bands are being drafted. Instead of replacing them with what may be mediocre talent, why not let some of the great girl musicians of the country take their place?”
I ask Viola why she had written the piece. “Because,” she says. “I knew all the girl musicians that were available. And if no one was hiring them, they would do something else. The music community would lose them.” But somebody did hire them. His name was Phil Spitalny.
II. THE HOUR OF CHARM
Phil Spitalny was a bandleader, famous on the radio at the time. He’d decided to organize the Phil Spitalny All-Girl Orchestra in 1934 after meeting and becoming mesmerized by violinist Evelyn Kaye Klein. Over the following years, the two set about auditioning hundreds of women from across the country for an all-female orchestra, building what would eventually become known as The Hour of Charm, or more casually Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra. Viola joined shortly after the publication of her article in DownBeat.
“We were the biggest and the best orchestra in the country,” Viola says. The way Viola speaks of her time with The Hour of Charm reminds me of the giddy way I used to tell my parents about sleepaway camp, listing off all the people I had met and all the adventures we had had in one dreamy train of thought. “Oh there was Marian McPartland, she was the best girl pianist in the country,” Viola said. “And there was Rosa Caruso. She was my best friend in the orchestra from way back. Maxine was one of the head singers, a top singer. There was Candace and Etienne, she was very, very famous, and Evelyn, of course, the first violinist.”
Viola describes playing everywhere from Sid Grauman’s former Paramount Theater (now home to Paramount Pictures) to the backlot at Universal Studios. She leans in close to tell me about inside jokes she, Marian, and Rosa used to tell behind the conductor’s back, and she smiles remembering how her friends would wait for her every time, while she packed up her drum set after a show.
I ask Viola whether, aside from her female friends, she had other relationships. Did she ever fall in love? I don’t say this out loud, but, back in the 50’s, it was highly unusual for a woman to be single and never marry. Viola thinks for a moment. “There was a lawyer,” she says. “The only problem was that he was married.” He gave Viola a date, a few years out, when he would leave his wife. But on the day that he had sworn to break off his marriage, she says, the lawyer had a heart attack and died. “That must have been very sad,” I say to Viola. But Viola just shrugs. “Well, sad for me. Not sad for him. Easy for him.”
III. THE PIECEMAKERS
In 2012, Viola boarded a flight to California at the insistence of her nephew, Dennis Bartash. She was 99 and he was worried about her. Her eleven siblings had all passed away. So, too, had many of her lifelong female musician friends: Marian the pianist at 101. Rosa the bass player at 103.
Viola was left to miss people. And to wonder why she was outliving everyone she knew. “Maybe it’s the drums that have kept me spry, or the wine, or going to the casino,” she says with a laugh. Then her face turns serious. “I heard that when you feel like you’re dying you take two Aspirin. It might revive you,” she tells me. “So for a long time I would have Aspirins at my bedside waiting for me to die. Nothing happened.”
Bartash had grown up watching his aunt perform on television. He remembers his entire extended family gathering in the living room every time Viola appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1950s. In one particularly memorable performance, the stage was dark and Viola played with iridescent drum sticks. “She’d throw them into the air, catch them, and keep playing,” Bartash says. “She was mesmerizing.”
The plan had originally been for Viola to live with Dennis in Canyon County, California, just north of Los Angeles. But Dennis had recently reconnected with Marie, and when she learned Viola was coming to town, she invited them to visit Piecemakers. Dennis drove Viola down to Costa Mesa, to see the cousin she hadn’t been in touch with for over 60 years. When they arrived, there was a shindig with food and drink, and Viola was embraced by Marie and the other women in the Piecemakers community. She visited their houses — many of them lived together — and someone cooked dinner each night. Marie offered to be Viola’s caretaker. “Come live with us,” Viola remembers her saying. “You can live here for the rest of your life.”
But just a few months later, Marie died, at the age of 90. Deborah says it was only natural that the community continue caring for Viola. They’d fallen in love with her spirit, her witticisms, and sense of humor. And Viola, for her part, was content to remain there. After Marie’s passing, the Piecemakers’ drama with the law subsided. Viola says she and the other women take walks, watch movies, and go for rides. They get salty caramel ice cream. Viola helps in the store sometimes too, winding ribbon and yarn and watching children come in for art lessons. And Dennis visits every so often. He and Viola drink red wine and go to the casino. I tell her this all sounds pretty great.
While the Piecemakers had heard bits and pieces about her career, Deborah says it took time to understand just how famous and accomplished she was. They began to get a taste when, halfway through Viola’s 100th birthday party, the phone rang. It was Joel Grey, the actor, singer, and original Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret, calling to wish Viola a happy birthday.
Another indication of Viola’s influence came when she turned 102. Viola had been interviewed for TomTom Magazine, a publication devoted to female drummers. A few weeks later, Deborah, Viola, and a fellow Piecemaker went to a Guitar Center, to get a few supplies for the Piecemakers’ band, which plays at the organization’s various events. Viola doesn’t take part. She says that playing the drums would be too much excitement for her.
At Guitar Center, a young woman was helping them, and after learning she was a drummer, Deborah volunteered that Viola was one too. “You could tell that this woman was just being polite with Viola, asking her where she had played, and not thinking much of it,” Deborah says. “And then on the counter was a copy of Tom Tom Magazine. This woman opened it and as she was flipping through it, I said, ‘Viola, there’s the article on you.’ This girl doubled over when she realized who Vi was. ‘You’re Viola Smith? And you’re in my fucking store? Every woman drummer knows who you are.’”
In the late afternoon, I say goodbye to Viola. We walk through Piecemakers and Viola turns to me and says, “Can you believe how much there is to look at in this store?” I realize I’ve softened somewhat to Piecemakers. “It’s really something,” I say.
There’s still a lot I don’t know about Viola Smith. In keeping her stories focused on The Schmitz Sisters, The Hour of Charm, and The Piecemakers, she’s kept me from some of her emotions, from the conflict in her life, and from the hardships of being a woman in a man’s industry.
I will never know the “true” story of Viola Smith. Instead, I have the one she wants to tell about herself, the one that she refuses to let slip away, and that is a story about groups of women. Sometimes women marry off, they leave an industry, they pass away, but there’s always another group of women who will welcome you, who will love you. Even when you’re 107 years old.