WWII-era female jazz band picked up beat when men left

KU professor's book, "Swing Shift," details the trailblazing efforts of Prairie View Co-Eds

— When World War II whisked away the men from Prairie View A&M; University, it was left to the women to keep the jazz flowing in place of the Texas school's all-male dance band.

On Wednesday, the historically black school honored the Prairie View Co-Eds for blazing a path and bringing recognition to the school during a time when it was the only public college in Texas that blacks could attend.


AP Photo

Clora Bryant, right front, breaks out laughing as the Prairie View Co-Eds gather for a group picture during a reception in their honor in Houston. The members of the historic Prairie View A&M all-girl jazz band gathered for the first time in more than 50 years for a two-day celebration held by the university in their honor. Back row from left are Ernest Crafton Miller, Argie Mae Edwards Medearis, Izola FedFord Collins, Elizabeth Thomas Smith and Marion Bridges Simon; front row, from left, are Helen Cole, Fannie Drisdale Burt and Bryant.

"We showed that women could play jazz," said Margaret Grigsby, now a doctor. "We set out to do what we could with the war effort by playing in place of the men."

The call for women musicians went out on campus in 1943. Those who had applied previously were turned down because playing music was not ladylike, according to a book called "Swing Shift," which features the Co-Eds.

Before long, 16 female students, mostly from small segregated towns in Texas, were earning money playing for servicemen throughout the South and audiences in New York at Harlem's famous Apollo Theatre.

"At that time there was no women's lib," said Fannie Drisdale Burt, 77, one of the band's original members. "We weren't trying to be trailblazers. It's just something that happened."

Prairie View A&M; Founder's Day celebration was the first time in more than half a century that some of the dozen or so jazz aficionados had seen their musical colleagues.

They reminisced about how they would arrive at gigs, always in ornate dresses, and get the same response as Bob Hope when he showed up at military bases. The women admit it could have been partly their gender, but say it was based mostly on their talent.

"They were the hippest thing," said Sherrie Tucker, a professor of American studies at Kansas University and author of "Swing Shift."

"The white press didn't really know about them, but in the black press they were celebrated," she said. "They also were a source of pride for black audiences."

"Swing Shift" is available locally at Borders Books Music & Cafe, 700 N.H., and The Raven bookstore, 8 E. Seventh St. It can be ordered at Hastings Books Music & Videos, 1900 W. 23rd St.

Tucker said the women projected an image of young, up-and-coming, educated females, which helped black women in their struggle from menial labor and one of the lowest rungs on the societal ladder. It was a time when all women were showing they could take on men's roles, Tucker said.

All girl-bands "were sites of struggle over race, class, gender and Americanness," she said.

They seized the opportunity, even if it meant harassment while on the road, bypassing restaurants and gas stations designated for whites and searching for black-owned hotels or rooming houses along the way.

"I understand the suffering and inconvenience you endured, but you endured it without complaint and carried the message of Prairie View through music," University President Charles Hines told the women Wednesday. "There is no better example of overcoming the odds then our Co-Eds."

The women said they saw their travels as exciting. Some said they don't remember experiencing much racism at the time. Tucker said many have likely put the painful memories out of their minds as the years have gone by.

"They felt what they were doing was important," Tucker said. "Many of them wanted to be professional musicians."

At the end of the war, the band reverted to an all-male group but drummer Helen Cole went on to form her own quartet after leaving college.

Cole said her love of music remains with her today, even if she can't play � or move to it � like she used to.


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