This Amazing Woman Was Known As ‘Fastest Girl Drummer in the World’ Playing for Over 80 Years Until Age 107

When it comes to drums, many people associate this instrument with men. After all, it’s such a primal instrument relying on the artist to beat on it with sticks, sounds like the ideal form of masculine musical expression.

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However, the late Viola Smith was one of the few women in the music business to defy that stereotype and set world records in the process!

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Viola died at her home in Costa Mesa, California, on October 21, 2020 at age 107. Originally from Wisconsin, Viola grew up in a large family filled with musicians, and she needed to play in a jazz band with her seven sisters. They called themselves “The Schmitz Sisters Orchestra, ” which their father put together. The troupe would end up touring via the Radio-Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit while also playing solo gigs at state fairs and movie theaters.

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Once the band broke up, Viola began another all-female group called the Coquettes. The band enchanted national audiences during the late 1930s, but Smith’s vibrant energy and insane precision garnered most of the spotlight; she was the first female star in the world of jazz drumming.

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Om 1942, Viola wrote an impassioned essay for DownBeat Magazine encouraging and advocating for female musicians, titled “Give Gil Muscisians A Break.” In the piece, Viola urged orchestras to hire more women in their haste to replace female players drafted into the military.

 “In these times of national emergency, many of the star instrumentalists of the big name bands are being drafted. Instead of replacing them with what may be mediocre talent, why not let some of the great girl musicians of the country take their place?”

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While the big bands mostly resisted her call to action, she still managed to spark badly needed awareness of the diverse talent available as her star continued to rise.

That same year, Viola moved to New York with a summer scholarship to attend Juilliard. She would later land a spot on another all-female ensemble called “Hour of Charm Orchestra,” led by Phil Spitalny. She would remain in the group for ten years and appeared on shows like Abbott and Costello’s Here Come The Co-eds.

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On her own, Smith also made several appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and performed at Harry Truman’s inauguration in 1949. She played with Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb and would join several orchestras for stints on broadway, which included the original 1960s production of Cabaret.

Smith was also known for her ambitious signature drum set up: 123 drugs, with two 16-inch tom-toms, at shoulder height. She would retire after the end of the Big Band era and settle in California, where she spent most of her days playing bridge and enjoying her senior years.

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Sadly much of Viola’s work is hard to find, as she never made any albums.

However, her impact on generations of drummers, such as Karen Carpenter, Tennesse Thomas, Debbi Peterson, Mehgan White, and Cindy Blackman, to name a few.

And she continued playing the drums well into her later years until she died.

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You can watch a video interview with this legendary female music icon below.

Also, check out this beautiful Viola Smith tribute video.

And here’s rare footage of Viola playing in the Coquettes.

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  1. “R.I.P. Viola Smith, known as the “fastest girl drummer in the world” AV Club.