Vi Burnside

The first time I listened to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, I was particularly drawn to Vi Burnside’s playing. Not surprising, since she was their lead tenor sax player and a woman after my own heart. Originally from Lancaster, PA, according to the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (NGDJ), she “played in the all-female band led by Bill Baldwin before joining the Dixie Rhythm Girls in late 1937.” [1] She was then a member of the highly respected Harlem Playgirls from 1938-1940 before she was recruited to join the Sweethearts in 1943. As one of the Sweethearts’ incredible featured soloists, she was with the band for their USO tour of Europe in 1945 and remained with the group until they disbanded in 1949.

Here’s an excellent example of her playing with the Sweethearts:

After her time with the Sweethearts, she led her own groups, under the names Vi Burnside’s All-Girl Band, Vi Burnside’s All-Stars, or Vi Burnside’s All-Girl Orchestra, holding residencies at such places as the Comedy Club in Baltimore and Joe’s Rendezvous in Chicago. [1] According to Sally Placksin, she was one of the few, along with Tiny Davis and Flo Dreyer (trumpet), as well as Beryl Booker (piano) who went on to lead their own small group after the war. [2] The group played mostly head arrangements of original music and was very popular, though sadly not recorded. The NGDJ mentions that she “reportedly recorded an album entitled Burnside Beat for the Abbey label in the early 1950s, but this does not appear in any discography and no details are available.” [1]

Though Burnside is not often discussed among the “tenor giants,” by all accounts she was a powerful player with the capability of really moving an audience. To my ears, her playing is both effervescent and relaxed. Full of fire. Sherrie Tucker calls it “driving” and “fluid.” [3] In her book, Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen Linda Dahl describes Burnside’s style as “vigorous, swinging, [and] melodic…in the tradition of tenormen like Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, and Don Byas.” [4] This must be one of the reasons her playing thrills me so, as that is the style toward which I also strive as a tenor player. Incidentally, she was a high school classmate of Sonny Rollins, another of the great tenor players of all time, so its possible (and this is, admittedly, merely speculation on my part) that the two influenced each other in their early days. Again, in Stormy Weather, Dahl goes on to say that Burnside was a “pioneering woman jazz player whose influence on other women musicians was considerable.” Willene Barton talks about her experience hearing the Sweethearts when she was a budding saxophonist in high-school.

At that time the Sweethearts of Rhythm were going, and my mother took me to the Apollo Theatre to see them several times. And I was star-struck. I thought, ‘Oh boy, those girls can do it — I can too.’ When I visited Harlem and saw these girls play, I just couldn’t get over that. The one in particular who was extraordinarily good was Vi Burnside. She opened the door for the rest of us. When I saw Vi, I said ‘Well, that was just great.’ Let me tell you, she shook the place up!”

Barton tells a story that gives more insight and depth to Burnside’s personality and musicianship than any other account I’ve found:

After the Sweethearts broke up, every manager, everybody in New York, was after Vi Burnside, so she easily got herself a group and traveled all over. I have never seen a woman command that much attention as far as a horn is concerned. I mean, she showed up in every big city in America. She made her debut at a club called the Baby Grand in Harlem, and I understand that you couldn’t get near the door. It was like that at every club she went to with her band. Well, this particular time she was in Cleveland, and she was QUEEN of the show, of course. In those days everybody came to see what the tenor player was made of. So then I came to town with Anna Mae and a smaller group she had broken down after the tour we made. We had trumpet, tenor, rhythm, and Anna Mae on vocals herself. [Anna Mae Winburn, vocalist and leader of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm] And everybody in town said to me, ‘Oh, you gotta play with Vi Burnside.’

I think it was the first weekend we were there that she came down to our club, the Ebony Lounge. And the place was packed. Now, I had a brand-new instrument, all pretty and shiny. So Vi asked if she could borrow my horn. I said sure. And she got up there and turned the place OUT. She played every note that was supposed to be in everything! So I knew that was it. The next week I went over to see her at her club, a place called Gleason’s. When the people saw me, they demanded that I play, so she gave me her horn. And when I left there they put so much money in the bell of that saxophone! I’ll never forget it. I had a bell full of money and a chicken dinner!

I wasn’t near ready, and she used to always refer to me as ‘that little child.’ It wasn’t ’til years later. By then she lived in Washington, where she was a musicians’ union delegate, and my group had a job in Annapolis, Maryland. She came down to the Club — the big queen. Now that time I was ready for her, and we settled that little score! [3]

She continued to work with various groups through the 60s, mainly in and around Washington DC where she was also on the board of the local musician’s union. She performed at the Washington Jazz Festival as late as 1964 according to the NGDJ. [1]

Its a shame there aren’t more recordings of her small group work, but thankfully, there are many recordings and even video footage of her playing with the Sweethearts for us to enjoy. Here is a playlist of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm for your listening pleasure.

Vi Burnside

So thankful for my sisters in music!

(Re)sources:

[1] Barry Dean Kernfeld. 2002. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. (New York : Grove’s Dictionaries Inc., 2002.)

[2] Placksin, Sally. American Women in Jazz 1900 to the Present. New York: Seaview Books, 1982.

[3] Tucker, Sherrie. Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.

[4] Linda. Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984). p. 84, 198-200

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