Celebrating our first female jazz drummer

By Tim Kane

Long before the advent of the modern day drummer in America and women’s incredible contributions leading that movement, our country enjoyed early female drumming pioneers the likes of Viola Smith (née Schmitz). 

Born November 29, 1912 in Wisconsin, Viola was the first professional female jazz drummer and noted for using up to 15 drums in her trap set. Many of the early percussion instrument choices Viola used on her trap kit with her first family band the Smith Sisters are the same ones used today by jazz/rock drummers and in group drum circles. Viola approached the drum kit like an orchestral composer meets trained facilitator, surrounding herself with as many tools as possible to create the ultimate rhythm and sound. Sound familiar? Remember Keith Moon’s large double bass drum rock kit with The Who in the 1970s, Neil Peart’s mammoth 360-degree stage kit with Rush in the 1980s, or fellow jazz drumming great Billy Cobham’s 10-piece fiberglass “Fibes” kit playing with Miles Davis in the 1960s? Viola literally invented the large drum kit set-up. 

She particularly enjoyed the woodblocks, congas and more famously her unique innovation employing elevated tom toms on her right and left side, which are now an industry standard. Back in the 1930s, many tom-toms required real animal skin heads just like we use today on authentic djembes and frame drums. There are many parallels between what drummers do and use for gear today and the giant footprint Viola carved. She was also humble enough to seek more training attending renowned music college, Juilliard School, and by taking lessons with legendary drummer, teacher and snare drum builder, Billy Gladstone.

When I first heard of Viola’s death, I only had a vague understanding of her immense contributions to the women’s movement and drumming. She was known as the fastest girl drummer in the world and a female version of Gene Krupa. She began drumming at age 12 and took the stage soon after touring the United States and world in orchestras, swing bands, and popular music from the 1920s until 1975 – all during a musical time largely dominated by male drummers and other musicians. Who can forget Viola’s brilliant composition on “Snake Charmer” by the Coquettes – an all-female orchestra she started – where her elevated tom-tom sounds and patterns closely resembled West African Dunduns. Not surprisingly, her dad was also an orchestra leader and gifted cornet player. Viola drummed on Broadway and performed at the inauguration of President Truman. Bucking the female novelty stigma of her time, Viola also appeared on the cover of Billboard Magazine and wrote female musician-centric articles for DownBeat.

Viola was still playing her trap set at age 104. What many may not know is that in her final days before moving on into the universe this past October at age 107, she battled Alzheimer’s Disease at a faith-based community in southern California called Peacemakers. 

I’m exhausted just researching all of Viola’s incredible contributions to jazz music and the drumming community as a whole. Let her drum in peace.

  • Tim Kane is a professional drum set musician, percussion instructor and drum circle facilitator who serves as newsletter curator for the Drum Circle Facilitators Guild. Learn more about him at www.kanedrums.com