The 1940s. The decade of the Great War. A time that brought with it great social change in America, reports CBS News Sunday Morning Contributor Billy Taylor. Men were doing their patriotic duty, heading off to fight. And women were doing their part, too. It was the time of Rosie The Riveter.
And what a time for Roz Cron.
"It was great fun -- great fun because I was born at the right time," she recalls. "Most of us were so young and really didn't know how much fun we were having," she explains. "In looking back...we were doing what we wanted to do."
Vocalist Carline Ray remembers it as an adventure.
"I had never been away from home, or my family for that matter," she says, "so for me, it was an adventure, and getting paid for what I do...can't beat that with a stick."
Talent and glamour were the order of the day, including Ina Rae Hutton's Melodears, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and Rita Rio and her All Girl Orchestra. We may not remember them all today. Only a few of them were recorded and fewer still made films.
But in her book, Swing Shift: All-Girl Bands of the 1940s, historian Sherrie Tucker has written about this brief period in jazz history.
"The whole job of the musician, I argue, becomes feminized during World War II," says Tucker. "Because all of a sudden masculinity, men on the bandstand during World War II, if they looked healthy and young...or at least over 17: 'Why aren't you in uniform?'"
Some of the most popular bands started at black colleges: The Sweethearts of Rhythm from Piney Woods, Miss., and the Prairie View Coeds from Prairie View, Texas, performed at school events and eventually began to travel around the country, raising money for their schools. The students were required to keep their grades high or they couldn't play.
"They took a full load of course work," says Tucker. "They belonged to the musicians' union, and they were professionally booked for weekend gigs and summer tours."
Eventually, the bands turned professional. Ray joined the International Sweethearts of Rhythm after she graduated from New York's Juilliard School of Music.
"There were days, there were weeks, when we were playing some place every night, just riding on the bus, back on the bus, going to the next town, that kind of thing," she recalls. "Once in awhile, we'd have a day off or two."
To achieve the full swing band sound, women had to play instruments only men had played before, like trumpets, saxophones, bass, and drums. Playing your instrument and looking glamorous night after night was a lot of hard work.
Says Roz Cron, "I couldn't handle playing my horn and giving it all I've got, and, where a man would play his horn and not worr about his shoulder strap showing because he's got...something on here where the sleeve's going to come down."
Cron joined the International Sweethearts of Rhythm in 1943.
For black performers, there were more serious obstacles to overcome. In those days, they usually couldn't even stay in hotels. Ray remembers how they traveled and dressed for each night's performance.
"In the Sweethearts, we had our own bus," she recalls. "We had upper and lower berths in it, just like a Pullman car on a train, and a little bathroom in the rear. And we slept on it. Our berths were on the bus. That's how we traveled."
Buses were really a necessity, because the black bands played to segregated audiences and, in the South, they lived by the Jim Crow laws.
"White patrons would sit upstairs, and we would be down, and our patrons would be down on the floor dancing and so forth, because white people would mostly come to observe," Ray explains. "They weren't coming to participate. And if they were coming to participate, there might be a rope dividing off the hall. White people on one side, black people on the other. That sort of thing."
Cron was one of the few white musicians daring enough to play in a black band in those days.
"In our band, we had very light skinned and very dark skinned and everybody in between in the band so...it was always difficult for the law, the sheriffs, to determine if one was white or not. And this was frustrating to them, because even one drop of blood meant that you were categorized as black," she says.
One night, in a southern town after playing a dance, Cron and a black GI were arrested for walking down the street together.
"A car was shadowing us, following us, and when the man got out of the car, I noticed he was a sheriff," says Cron. "I gave him...the manager's name, and where we were staying, and putting on my thickest accent to try to throw him off. Nothing worked, and he was really, really horrible to the GI, who was in uniform and everything. I was a nervous wreck because he put us both in the car."
Tucker takes up the story, recounting that Cron did spend the night in jail. How did her fellow band members get her out?
"I call it a fictive kinshop strategy," says the author. "Some of the lighter skinned women of the band went to the jail and said, 'She's our cousin. You've made a mistake.'"
Despite the racism, the rigors of traveling on the road, the girl bands played on.
Many women became accomplished musicians, often besting men in those legendary battles of the bands.
Says Cron, "We had played Jubilee Broadcasts. We made four of them, I believe, when we were out in California and Los Angeles at NBC, the old NBC Studios. And they were taped for the Armed Forces Radio. And the GIs...just fell in love with us and almost demanded that we be sent over."
But the triumphs of the girl bands were not to lastNot long after the girls came back from the USO tours and the soldiers came marching home again, the men wanted their old jobs back. The women were encouraged to step back into their more traditional roles.
"When I went home, hundreds of thousands of GIs were going home, too," Cron recalls. "There was very little work. In fact, I don't remember working very much at all, in Boston. And then I went to work in a bank. Then I met my husband
"Aside from having my two sons," she concludes, "those were the best years of my life, really."
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