This week, we’ve taken Five Things Friday to highlight some amazing women’s brass ensembles in history. These groups are as different as they come and range from famous to barely-remembered. Nonetheless, every ensemble on the list proves how women have been playing brass for centuries!
1. The Hormel Girls
After World War II, Jay Hormel, the owner of the Hormel Company, promised to give a jobs to those who had served in the armed services during the war. In fulfilling that promise, Hormel founded a touring women’s drum and bugle corps to promote his company, employing an original fifty-six women. The group, which became known as the “Spamettes,” was America’s first-ever professional all-female drum and bugle corps. They competed in the twenty-ninth American Legion National Drum
and Bugle Corps Championship Competition, becoming the first all-female group to compete in that competition. As the New York Times saw it, “for the first time in American Legion history, an all-woman drum and bugle corps composed of veterans of World War II [was] making ready to challenge male supremity.”
The group performed for seven years, eventually also producing a radio show, singing, and dancing in addition to their instrumental acts.
NB: Citations for each item are at the end of the post
2. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm
In 1937, Lawrence Jones was looking for ways to raise money for the vocational school he ran a for poor black children and teenagers in Piney Woods, Mississippi. He started an all-girl swing band to tour the East coast raising money.
In 1941, the group began touring across the country, went professional, and severed ties with their school in Piney Woods. They shot to fame and, in 1944, they were named “America’s No. 1 All-Girl Orchestra” by Downbeat magazine. The first racially-integrated all-female band in the United States, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm had members of black, white, Chinese, Mexican, and Indian descent. The two white members passed as black to skirt Jim Crow laws in the south.
In 1945, they performed in Paris and Germany on a six-month European USO tour, and then the group disbanded in 1949 after 12 years of roaring success.
3. Aledo Ladies’ Cornet Band
In 1882, a man named “Prof.” E.D. Wood moved to the town of Aledo, Illinois with the goal of starting a music store. Once the store was up and running in May of that year, he also started a “Conservatory of Music” ($4 per week with board and use of instruments), where he trained an all-female brass ensemble. The group trained for a year, performed for the town of Aledo on the Fourth of July, and then toured to Burlington, Fort Madison, and Keokuk, Iowa. Wood composed an original piece called “The Ladies Cornet Band March” for the ensemble. The band performed regularly around Aledo and surrounding areas of Illinois for about two more years, and then broke up when Wood unexpectedly died in 1885.
4. 1900s Damen Blasorchester und Damen Trompeterkorps
In Germany and Austria-Hungary in the early 20th Century, the widespread popularity of military bands gave rise to dozens of female brass or wind ensembles. Usually called Damen Blasorchester (“ladies’ wind bands”) or Damen Trompeterkorps (“ladies’ trumpet corps”), these groups proliferated in the dozens, perhaps always with a male bandleader and often with both male and female musicians despite their names. The bands performed professionally in public venues such as restaurants, spa towns, dance halls, and Biergartens. As evidenced by the large surviving number of photo post cards with their images, these ensembles were likely valued for their visual appeal and apparent incongruity as much as for their musical appeal.
5. Trinity Girls’ Brass Band
[The following is adapted and largely quoted from the Trinity Girls’ Brass Band Website:] Trinity Girls Brass Band, based in Garswood, England, is a traditional British brass band comprised entirely of female members. The group was established in 1959 thanks to a local woman, Margaret Stokes, at a time when there were hardly any female brass players around, if any at all. Margaret, a local midwife, was at the time in charge of the local Girls Guildry and after hearing the ‘musical efforts’ of the local Boys’ Brigade, decided that ‘girls could make a better attempt’. She took the revolutionary step and set up an all-girls brass band. Although Margaret had no previous conducting experience, she was more willing to give it a go.
Two years later, the band broke away from the Girls Guildry to become an independent organisation under the name of the Girls Guildry Band. It later became The Trinity Girls Silver Band, named after the Holy Trinity Church to which it has originally belonged. People in the local village were very proud of the Girls band and their reputation as the only all girl band in the country soon spread.
The band began competing in 1970 and continues performing and competing to this day!
Bonus: Fordham Nuns’ Orchestra
This was a full orchestra and not a brass group, but this ensemble was too cool to leave out. In the summer of 1954, nuns who worked as schoolteachers convened at Fordham University’s School of Education for a professional development. As a part of the workshops there, each nun was instructed in the skills it would take to start and run a student instrumental ensembles. As those skills included knowing how to play a variety of instruments, each nun learned to play the trumpet and clarinet before choosing her favorite instrument to play in the All-Nun Orchestra concert at the end of the program. Along with spreading music education, this one-time concert and its feature in LIFE magazine provided some incredible photos for posterity!
Korenne, Elisa, and Barbara Gravel. “Hormel Girls.” Prairie Mosaic Shorts, Prairie Public, 1 June 2014, whut.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/75aed16f-2a2c-4188-923f-4f4ea01d0da0/elisa-korenne-hormel-girls/#.WZdHkCiGPIU.
Sullivan, Jill M., and Danelle D. Keck. “The Hormel Girls.” American Music, vol. 25, no. 3, 2007, pp. 282–311. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40071663.
Benjamin, Winston. “International Sweethearts of Rhythm Jazz Band (1937-1949).” BlackPast.org, www.blackpast.org/aah/international-sweethearts-rhythm-jazz-band-1937-1949.
Beyerle, Mo. “Harmonie Als Utopie: The International Sweethearts of Rhythm (1986) Von Greta Schiller Und Andrea Weiss.” Frauen Und Film, no. 52, 1992, pp. 7–14. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43500490.
McDonough, John. “America’s ‘Sweethearts’: An All-Girl Band That Broke Racial Boundaries.” NPR, NPR, 22 Mar. 2011, www.npr.org/2011/03/22/134766828/americas-sweethearts-an-all-girl-band-that-broke-racial-boundaries.
Tammy L. Kernodle. “International Sweethearts of Rhythm.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 18 Aug. 2017. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2235311.
Boyd Finch, L. “A Tune of Their Own: The History of Aledo’s Original All-Female Cornet Band.” Illinois Periodicals Online, Illinois State Library, www.lib.niu.edu/2002/ih020706.html.
Applegate, Celia. “The Necessity of Music: Variations on a German Theme.” The Necessity of Music: Variations on a German Theme, University of Toronto Press, 2017, pp. 234–235.
Brubaker, Mike. “Postcards of German Ladies Orchestras.” TempoSenzaTempo, 10ADAD, temposenzatempo.blogspot.ca/2011/10/postcards-of-german-ladies-orchestras.html.
Trinity Girls, www.trinitygirlsbrassband.org.uk.
“Nuns’ Orchestra.” LIFE Magazine, 28 Aug. 1944, pp. 37–40.