In honor of National Women's History Month, Riverwalk Jazz presents a salute to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first racially-integrated "all-girl" jazz band in the country, featuring interviews with two surviving members of the band: Helen Jones Woods, trombone player and Roz Cron, alto saxophonist.
Named by Down Beat magazine as America's #1 All-Girl Orchestra in 1944, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm enjoyed an enormous following performing on the black theater circuit, including the Apollo in New York, the Paradise in Detroit and the Howard in Washington, D.C. The Sweethearts played battle-of-the-bands concerts against jazz orchestras led by Fletcher Henderson and Earl Hines. Letter-writing campaigns by black soldiers overseas led to the band embarking on a 6-month European tour in 1945, making the Sweethearts the first black women to travel with the USO.
Roz Cron talks with David Holt about life on the road with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, including her arrest in El Paso, Texas for attempting to "pass for black."
Roz Cron joined the Sweethearts in 1943 when she was 18 years old while living at home with her parents in Boston. She received a surprising call one night from backstage at the Apollo Theater. It was the manager of the Sweethearts looking for someone to replace one of the alto players who'd become ill and returned home to Kansas.
Roz was one of only a handful of white women in the band. Most of its members were mixed-race young women in their teens or early 20s. Some were Chinese-American or Native American—and many were African-American. Though it was against the law for a mixed-race group to travel and perform together in the South at the time, it didn't stop the Sweethearts.
Back in the USA, contending with gas and tire shortages of the WWII Era, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm made two coast-to-coast tours in their bus—Big Bertha. As a racially-mixed band, they defied Jim Crow laws by their very existence, but didn't hesitate to travel extensively in the South.
The Jim Cullum Jazz Band and their guests salute the Sweethearts with performances of Swing Era classics, "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" and "String of Pearls." Also heard are the only recordings the International Sweethearts of Rhythm made, live air-checks from 1945-46.
Photo credit for Home Page: International Sweethearts Sax Section, Chicago, 1944. Photo courtesy Roz Cron.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2011