Thelma Terry

Another important woman in jazz history who is not often discussed is bassist and bandleader, Thelma Terry. According to the Wikipedia article on Terry (born Thelma Combes), she was “the first American woman to lead a notable jazz orchestra as an instrumentalist.” [1] Based in Chicago, she toured the states with her band and was very successful in the 1920s. “Thelma Terry and her Play Boys” made six recordings in 1928, which can all be found on youtube. Her bass playing is driving and powerful. She really pulled the strings! Below is my personal favorite of her six sides which incidentally features her bass playing to great advantage and with remarkable sound quality especially considering the time it was recorded:

She was classically trained, playing principal bass in the Chicago Women’s Symphony at age 18, and went to Austin High School “hence her association with many white jazz musicians of the so-called ‘Austin High Gang’, such as [Bud] Freeman.” [2] She became a fixture in the Chicago music scene, even interacting with (and holding her own in the company of) Al Capone. In 1926 or so before she was hired by the Music Corporation of America, formed her own band, and changed her last name to Terry, she worked with Eddie Condon at a club in Chicago called the Vanity Fair. He tells the following story about her in his book We Called it Music:

When I went to work the first night I saw a bass fiddle resting in the corner. While I was tuning my banjo, a beautiful girl walked in. She kept coming toward me, stepped up on the bandstand, and went to the fiddle. “Nice to see you,” she said to me casually. “I’m the bass player.” Her name was Thelma Coombs [sic], and she had been held over from the previous band. When I heard her behind me in the first number I knew she was a musician. This, I thought, is wonderful — a beautiful blonde in the rhythm section, a first class cafe, and good pay. Wonderful was the right word. The job lasted ten months. I made well over a hundred dollars each week, and all that winter, Thelma was my date. She was a guy’s girl; I never had to worry about her no matter where we were, and we were in some curious places. Often we cabareted on the south side until seven or eight o’clock in the morning. It never bothered Thelma; if she got tired or bored she got up quietly and went home by herself. [3]

On Terry’s family website, David Appolini disputes Condon’s claim that Terry “was his date” but not her strong character and independence. [4] In, Stormy Weather, Linda Dahl includes the following quote from Brian Rust’s The Dance Bands in reference to Terry:

Not only a remarkable musician in Chicago in the twenties, she would have been so anywhere at anytime, for while there were few enough girls in the band business… the number of girl bass players could easily be counted on the fingers of one hand without the thumb. Dominating them all was diminutive, petite Thelma Terry, whose Playboys at one time included Gene Krupa. There were no women in the band at all. [5]

It is interesting to note that her style of bass playing was athletic and vigorous, defying the stereotype that women were not suited for or incapable of such a thing. She strikes me as a self-possessed, no-nonsense woman and a musician with a clear and authoritative identity, as evidenced by her recordings and Condon’s, Rust’s, and Apollini’s accounts.

Unfortunately, she decided to leave the scene in 1929 just before embarking on an international tour, after tiring of show business and enduring sexual harassment and insubordination from her male band members. [2] A few years ago, she was featured prominently in “How Low Can You Go: Anthology of the String Bass 1925-1941” in which they write, “She was a pioneering woman bandleader, and one of the first Northern musicians of either gender to understand Southern rhythm so thoroughly.” [6] I can thank my husband and musical partner, Ryan Gould for introducing me to her music!

Thelma Terry


[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Thelma Terry,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed December 31, 2018).

[2] David Appolini. “Thelma Terry.” The Red Hot Jazz Archive.

[3] Eddie Condon with Thomas Sugrue. We Called it Music: A Generation of Jazz. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1992.)

[4] Appolini, David. “Jazz & Symphony Bassist and Bandleader Thelma Combs (aka. Thelma Terry).” April 21, 2000.

[5] Dahl, Linda. Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

[6] Spottswood, Dick. “Thelma Terry and Her Playboys.” Liner notes for How Low Can you Go? Anthology of the String Bass. Dust-to-Digital, 2006. 3 Compact Discs.


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