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International Sweethearts of Rhythm: America’s Hottest All Girl Band

2007
Distributed by Jezebel Productions, PO Box 1348, New York, NY 10011
Produced by G. Schiller and A. Weiss
Directed by G. Schiller and A. Weiss
DVD, color, 105 min.
College - Adult
Music, Swing, Jazz, Gender Studies, Women in Music


Reviewed by Vincent J. Novara, Curator, Special Collections in Performing Arts, University of Maryland

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
 
Date Entered: 2/18/2011

International Sweethearts of Rhythm: America’s Hottest All Girl Band brings together three separate documentaries created by Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss, including the main title (1986, 30 minutes), Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women (1987, 28 minutes), and Maxine Sullivan: Love to be in Love (1988, 47 minutes). Presented as a trilogy concerning women in jazz, the documentaries may seem dated now (over twenty years later), but still serve as effective and necessary commentary on an important and often neglected subject in jazz history. Viewed in sequence, the documentaries reveal the implications of race, gender, and even sexuality issues for this community of musicians.

International Sweethearts of Rhythm chronicles the career of the band of the same name from its formation at the Piney Country Life School in Mississippi in the late 1930s through its evolution into a professional band. The film includes historical footage of women in the workplace during World War II, clips of the band from some of their appearances in feature films, interviews from the late 1980s with surviving band members, and footage of peer bands (including an all white female swing band and swing bands composed of men).

The issue of the band’s racial diversity is discussed. The International Sweethearts were predominantly African American, but also included white and Asian women, as well. For an all-female ensemble of any era, this is a topic that merits examination. The band’s director/vocalist, Anna Mae (Darden) Winburn, commented: “By being a mixed group with different nationalities we did not have the exposure that they [other bands] had, we were exposed a lot to the black people. The black people remember this band to this day.” Segregation existed for their entire career and influenced many basic aspects of being a professional traveling ensemble. White members would have to paint their faces for southern shows so that they would not be arrested for being on stage with African Americans. Touring considerations such as where to sleep, and where to eat were also complicated by segregation-all while facing the challenges of trying to succeed in a male dominated profession during an era where expectations for women in music were limited to more delicate instruments (voice, strings, piano) and seemingly more refined music.

Gender certainly informed several aspects of the ensemble, including their name. The members even referred to themselves as having been a “Sweetheart of Rhythm.” Winburn later comments: “Our sole purpose was putting across the music that was the language spoken amongst the girls.” Due to their gender, they also had to fight against perceptions of being a novelty act. A select few of their male contemporaries were willing to comment on this perception, one going so far as to judge “they didn’t have the power” to compete with the male bands.

This documentary, though short at thirty minutes, is evenly paced, with each topic explored adequately for comprehension. By the time the viewer reaches the final song (“Do You Wanna Jump, Children?”), they are likely to be fully invested in the history of this swing band. The DVD also includes a seven-minute question and answer session with the filmmakers discussing International Sweethearts of Rhythm upon that documentary’s twentieth anniversary in 2006.

Tiny and Ruby covers the forty-two-year friendship and eventual intimate relationship of two jazz musicians, and Sweethearts alumnae, Tiny Davis (1907-1994) and Ruby Lucas [Renei Phelan] (dates unknown).The documentary, however, serves primarily as a biography of Davis. Ernestine “Tiny” Davis was the charismatic trumpeter and singer known most for her band Tiny Davis and her Hell-Divers. Originally a Kansas City musician, especially with her Torrid Eight, Davis joined the International Sweethearts of Rhythm in the late 1940s as a star performer. She was one of the few members to have a successful and sustained career in jazz beyond the Sweethearts. Davis was the mother of at least three children with her first husband. Upon their separation Davis left Kansas City and joined the Sweethearts soon after. Ruby Lucas was originally a pianist, but also played drums and bass. Throughout the film she is shown as a drummer, but she was actually the bassist on several of the Hell-Divers’ recordings. Davis’s daughter, Dorothy Houston, joined the band as bassist and pianist in the mid-1950s, and played alongside her mother for over fifteen years.

The sexual orientation of Davis and Lucas is presented as an outgrowth of the freedom that music afforded these women. Yet, how publicly gay the couple was is not clear from this film. No evidence is offered that the Hell-Divers presented themselves as lesbian performers, which is not surprising considering the era (1950s-1960s). Davis does discuss that the Hell-Divers would perform in gay bars patronized by gay men and women. Furthermore, the interpersonal dynamics of Davis and Lucas’s long-term intimate relationship are displayed from within their home, revealing roles (Davis still as something of a star, and Lucas as the home-keeper) and the quality of life the women produced for themselves into their retirement years. Overall, this shorter documentary is vaguely constructed at times and not as coherent as Schiller and Weiss’s other works on this DVD.

The third documentary, Maxine Sullivan: Love to be in Love, is a biographical documentary about the jazz vocalist best known for her 1930s interpretation of the song “Loch Lomond” and other such traditional songs. Sullivan [Marietta Williams] (1911-1987) has no connection to the International Sweethearts or to any of Tiny Davis’s bands. The inclusion of this documentary is relevant, nevertheless, in that it is about a woman performing jazz, yet in this case in a more socially acceptable role as a singer backed and managed by men. Moreover, the proximity of the Sullivan documentary with the others on this DVD demonstrates how exceptional the careers of the International Sweethearts and Tiny Davis truly were.

The title of the Sullivan documentary originates from a recording she made in 1985. The film discusses her earliest musical memories in Pittsburgh and spans much of her life, focusing largely on her music career. Her personal life receives little attention, giving the impression that it may have been unremarkable. The footage is a combination of performances; clips from feature films in which she appeared; and interviews with Sullivan, her associates, other jazz musicians, and scholars.

Sullivan’s later singing is equally impressive when compared to her earlier work. Towards the end of her life, however, the character of her instrument had evolved into that of an orthodox jazz vocalist. Her live rendition of “Georgia on My Mind” stands out among the later performances shown here, though her in-session work is also noteworthy. The interviews with her collaborator Scott Hamilton (saxophonist) provide the most useful commentary for understanding her late career and working methods, especially when one considers that during the last four years of her life she was recording a new full-length album every three months. It is also interesting that following a twelve-year retirement (ending in the late 1960s), Sullivan, in addition to singing, began performing on valve trombone, later switching to the flugel horn.

This is the longest of Schiller and Weiss’s documentaries on women in jazz and the extra time does much to tell a more complete story. Yet much of this added time is expended on unabridged performances of songs, which will be of interest for music scholars.

This DVD belongs in any library supporting studies in jazz, race, gender, or sexuality. Newly restored in 2007, the audio fidelity is generally consistent, a vital component for films about music. The historical footage is relevant, visually engaging, and also enhanced by historical and contextual clips (cityscapes, vehicles, children in the 1930s, etc.). Primary sources such as news-clippings, posters, photographs, record covers, and manuscripts appear throughout the film in support of the topics under discussion. It is clear that the filmmakers took a very empathetic approach to their subjects, thus there is virtually no criticism in these documentaries. That omission does not diminish the value of this trilogy as a means to discover these artists or recognize their impact on jazz.