Swing Shift

All Girl Bands of the 1940s by Sherrie Tucker

by Lanny Gilbert


It don't Mean a Thing

If music be the food of love, play on:
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
— Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Chances are, you’ve heard about the all-girl baseball leagues of the 1940s, who were immortalized in the movie A League of Their Own. You’ve also more than likely heard the phrase “Rosie the Riveter”, which referred to females who went to work in war plants in lieu of the men who were being drafted left and right. But, unless you’re at least 60, I bet that you never heard of a Swing Shift Maisie. Well, I’m here to tell you; these were the hippest, swinging-est gals of the 1940s and they were out to prove they could play the popular music of the day just as well as the men could.

cover art

Swing Shift

Sherrie Tucker

All Girl Bands of the 1940s

(Duke University Press)

In her book Swing Shift, Sherrie Tucker has produced an exhaustively researched and thoroughly entertaining look at the Swing Shift Maisies (who were ladies performing in touring jazz bands in place of male performers, who were at war), the era they performed in, and the lives they led as performers.

While the book is really more about the women who played the music than the music itself, there are several anecdotes concerning various popular tunes. To note one of them, after reading Jane Sager’s (regarded in Ms. Tucker’s book as probably the top female trumpeter of the era) tale of playing “I Can’t Get Started” for a horribly injured and mutilated soldier, you’ll never think of Bunny Berigan’s signature song the same way.

Along the way, you’ll read about how these ladies ran afoul of the Jim Crow South and reverse discrimination. One group, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, had to hide their only white member any time that a Southern police officer stopped their tour bus.

You’ll meet many of the famous female bandleaders, such as Ada Leonard, who was a former Chicago stripper and leader of Ada Leonard’s All-American Girl Orchestra. She packed ‘em in, as the saying goes, with all the gents in attendance hoping that she’d return to her old ways. But, alas, she demurred by “gliding about the stage in a tight-fitting evening gown, her dark hair in a bun, (brandishing) her baton with the sophistication and grace of a prima ballerina.”

Read also about Sharon Rogers and her Orchestra, who almost died when their plane crashed in the Sea of Japan about 50 feet from an ammunition barge. This band, as well as Ada Leonard’s group and many others you’ll meet in the book did their part for the war effort, as they played countless USO shows. The men loved them so much that Jane Sager from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm said “We could have spit on the floor, and they would have applauded.”

Before this book is through, I think you’ll completely disagree with George T. Simon’s quote that opens the book: “Only God can make a tree . . . and only men can play jazz.” Women, it seems, can match men note for note.

A few years ago, before he decided to start playing all that syrupy, sappy boring stuff, I saw Kenny G. perform live. About midway through an absolutely blazing solo, he completely stopped playing and doubled over in laughter as the band carried on behind him. When he finally caught his breath, he told the audience what had happened. He said, “While I was playing that solo, there was this black dude here in front who screamed to his friend ‘Damn, I didn’t know a white boy could play like that!’”

Although I’ve played in many bands that feature the music of the Swing era, after finishing Ms. Tucker’s book, I can only say “Damn, I didn’t know women could swing like that!”

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