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The Pioneering Legacy Of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today we want to transport you back to a different time, when a group of pioneering women who called themselves the International Sweethearts of Rhythm broke through barriers and made music history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INTERNATIONAL SWEETHEARTS OF RHYTHM: (Singing) When you're feeling low and you don't know what to do, when you're feeling low and you don't know what to do. Just in the groove. Don't let nothing bother you.

MARTIN: The International Sweethearts of Rhythm reached the height of their acclaim in the 1940s as the nation's first racially integrated all-women's jazz band. They toured the country and the world even as they faced discrimination on the basis of both race and gender. Tomorrow, the annual Urban One Honors ceremony will be paying tribute to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, honoring their contributions as symbols of success against adversity. Here to tell us more is Cathy Hughes. Now, you might know her as the pioneering media mogul, chairwoman of the Urban One media company. But today, we are hearing from her because her mother, Helen Jones Woods, played trombone as a founding member of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Cathy, thank you so much for joining us.

CATHY HUGHES: Thank you for inviting me and sharing my mother's story with your listeners.

MARTIN: What a story. I mean, I think that people who know you as a person who's certainly broken barriers as the chief executive founder of a media company, I mean, what a surprise to hear this. So tell us about the band. How did it get started?

HUGHES: Well, it started at my mother's father's school, Piney Woods School. My grandfather started this band as a fundraising device. He was very clever. He and my grandmother, Grace, they had a baseball team that played against the National Negro League, did fundraisers for the school. They had a choir, the Cotton Blossom Singers, who would go around to various churches and sing for contributions. Then he took the school's marching band and named them The Sweethearts, and they would play dances. And the band would travel. And these were teenage girls. And they were full of, you know, vim and vigor loving music and wanting to play swing, which, you know, was the forerunner to jazz. And he said, oh, no, no, no, no. You all can not play swing. That's devil music.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Oh, my goodness.

HUGHES: So one night after they had done a big dance, they stole the tour bus and ran off to Washington, D.C., and became a fully professional 18-piece women's orchestra.

MARTIN: That is crazy. Well, you know, how did your grandpa react when they took the bus?

HUGHES: He went and got his bus. Let's start there, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

HUGHES: And he tried to reclaim my mother, who was 15 years old at the time. They eventually bought the bus from him. The other interesting aspect of all this is Earl "Fatha" Hines called them the first Freedom Riders in the history of civil rights because there were white musicians in the group, and these women would have to perform in blackface. They'd have to put on makeup and pass as Black so that they would not be arrested. They couldn't play for mixed audiences. They had to play either for a Black venue or a white venue. And here on stage, you have Black women, you have white women, you have Spanish women, you have Asian women. And so that was strictly against the law. But they ran from the police on more than one occasion.

MARTIN: Did you ever talk to your mother about what gave her the fortitude to do that? I mean, they were defying all these strictures. They were - you know, parents who didn't want them to...

HUGHES: Yes.

MARTIN: ...You know, her dad did not want her performing this kind of music...

HUGHES: That's right.

MARTIN: ...Let alone in this way with this group at that time. And did you ever talk to her about, like, how did they get the courage to do that?

HUGHES: Many times. My mother told me that in life you have to find something that, when you're doing it, you could have a fever of 104 degrees, you could be cramping so terribly that you would be doubled over. But the minute you start interacting with that which brought you joy, it would just completely dissipate. It would completely just vanish. Music, she would explain to me, would put you in a trance where you would be able to overcome anything that was distracting you from the music. The music was that powerful with these young women.

MARTIN: So as we were saying, the International Sweethearts were at their peak in the '40s during World War II.

HUGHES: Yes.

MARTIN: So is that in part because male musicians were being drafted and so there was a sort of an opportunity for them?

HUGHES: Exactly. Absolutely. The tragedy is that when the war ended and the male musicians came home, the women were all left on the curb.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that, yeah.

HUGHES: The clubs stopped booking them, and they were forgotten.

MARTIN: Why do you think that we don't know more about them?

HUGHES: Well, the same reason that three women were responsible for us landing in outer space. And we didn't find out about hidden figures until the movie came out.

MARTIN: Did your mom - obviously she went on to have a full life, but did she ever express regret at not getting her due? And forgive me, I just - I do want to offer my condolences because your mom died last year from COVID, and I'm so sorry.

HUGHES: Yes, COVID took my mother. So let me tell you a story about after the band had disbanded. My mother was such an accomplished musician that she got a position with the Omaha Symphony. My mother was very light complected. And so they, you know, just, I guess, assumed that she was white until one night, there was a snowstorm. And my father came to pick her up. She normally took the bus home. But his job had let him off early, and so he went by the concert hall to pick up my mother. And so they were like, you know, what are you doing back here? OK, who are you? And he said, I've come to pick up my wife. And the next day, they fired her. And my mother put her horn down that day and did not pick it up till the day she died.

MARTIN: Oh, my.

HUGHES: She said that she could not allow music to destroy her emotionally any longer. And it's about to make me cry. They never even questioned her. They just called her the next day and told her her services were no longer needed or wanted was the term that they used. So either they thought she was a white woman married to a Black man, or they realized that she was in fact a Black woman.

MARTIN: Oh, my. Cathy, oh, my. What an incredible story. I mean, and it's wonderful that you're creating an opportunity for them to be recognized, but I don't know. How are you going to sit through it? I mean, it's just - to think about all the weight of history and all of the - I mean, yes, it was a triumph, but all that came with that, I mean, that's just - it's almost too much.

HUGHES: Yeah, a lot of heartache and pain that, you know, made me, you know, tear up on you even talking about it. But let me say this to you. I'm producing the special. I was blessed to be able to acquire the skills of Kim Burse. Kim, for over a decade, did all of Beyonce's performances, all of her music. She was her music director. And I asked her, would she take a look at rearranging their music so that we could have a contemporary presentation? Because, quite frankly, not many people want to sit around and listen to music from the 1930s and '40s.

And so when you asked me how difficult it was - not at all, because once I heard what Kim had done with my mother's music, she brought it back alive. And to be honest with you, Michel, it's the first time the grieving let up. It's hard when you lose your mama at any age. But when you're in your 70s yourself and you lose your mama, I don't know life without her. But hearing her music presented by a group of young, talented Black women really gave me such relief I could not put it into words how thankful I am to Kim and the KB Players.

MARTIN: That was Cathy Hughes, chair of the Urban One media company and the daughter of Helen Jones Woods, a founding member of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. The band is being honored, among others, at the Urban One Honors ceremony, which airs tomorrow night on TVOne and Cleo TV. Cathy Hughes, thank you so much for sharing these important stories with us.

HUGHES: Thank you, Michel. It's always a pleasure to listen to you and to talk to you, particularly today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.