Ginger Smock

Today, I’d like to feature violinist, Ginger Smock. This woman could play just about anything and her music really soars. From classical melodies to hot fiddle solos her versatility meant that she always had work and was able to adapt as the times changed. She started playing at a young age, studying classically and receiving a standing ovation from 25,000 people when she played at the Hollywood Bowl at the age of ten. While she figured she was headed for the concert stage, she also listened to the Hot Club of France on the radio when she was young and was inspired by Stephane Grappelli’s masterful jazz violin playing. [1]

She started to sit by the phonograph and improvise to records of the great jazz orchestras of the time such as Jimmy Lunceford and Duke Ellington, and then play her improvisations to the delight of her school-mates. She went on to study the music of jazz fiddle maestros Joe Venuti, Eddie South, and Stuff Smith as well while continuing to develop her own style. [2] By the time she was twenty-three, she was called to sub for one of her heroes, the great Stuff Smith himself and she was off and running.

Smock enjoyed a full career as a band-leader, composer, and symphony musician. She was part of the famous Central Avenue scene in LA in the 1940s along with other great jazzwomen such as Clora Bryant and Melba Liston. Just after World War II, she had a standing gig with the Sepia Tones following Nat Cole in a club in LA called “The Last Word, ” then went on to lead several groups such as Chicks & the Fiddle, Ginger & Her Magic Notes, and Ginger & her Shipmates when she was musical director on a cruise ship to Catalina Island. She also led the first black band to host a regular television show on a major channel in 1951; a sextet called the Hollywood Sepia Tones which also featured the great trumpetiste, Clora Bryant. [3] A few years later she hosted her own live television show, Rhythm Review. In an interview with Bette Yarbrough Cox, Smock cheerfully discusses the grueling schedule of performing until 2 or 3 am and then showing up for make-up at 8 am that same morning and recording a live, unscripted television show by 10. Smock went on to perform with various groups in Las Vegas for the last twenty years of her career, working with the great Sammy Davis Jr. in the 80s. [1]

In her 1983 interview with Bette Yarbrough Cox, Smock is incredibly humble and expresses deep gratitude to each person who supported her musical growth through the years. Her demeanor is cheerful and her positivity is inspiring. It is important to note, however, that her path wasn’t without struggle or discrimination. In a later interview with Sherrie Tucker, Smock shares an “incident in which a talent scout for RCA Victor heard her playing jazz violin at a club in San Francisco, made a demo record of her and tried and get her a recording contract:” [4]

He told the executives, “Sit down, I want you to hear something.” So when he finished playing the two numbers, these guys were so impressed, they said, “Who on earth is playing the violin? We’ve never heard anything like this.” And he says, ‘A colored girl up there in San Francisco.” They said, ‘Aw, forget it. We’ve got Joe Venuti” (Smock Shipp 1993).

As Tucker points out, “A more complete picture of jazz history might encompass black women’s knowledge of doors closed to them and their attempts to pry those doors open, rather than simply reproducing these dynamics by ignoring how gender and race affected admission to or exclusion from specific activities.” [4]

In Stormy Weather, Linda Dahl writes, “In an interview in 1951 [Smock] voiced the oft-heard complaint of women players: ‘It’s hard for a girl to get anywhere in the musical profession, and for a girl jazz musician, it’s even harder. We have to face the fact that a lot of people think there’s something sort of — well, unladylike about a girl jazz musician.'” [5] But there were a great many jazzwomen, Smock included, who were unperturbed by those difficulties and carried on, rising to the challenge and thriving.

I discovered Ginger Smock because I was trying to cover players of a different instrument each day and I realized I had yet to run across any female jazz fiddle players from years past. This surprised me because there are quite a few wonderful fiddle-playing jazzwomen who live and work here in Austin, TX, so I supposed I assumed I’d find just as many throughout history. When I searched for a recording that featured Smock’s playing, the first one that came up was the aptly titled, “A Woman’s Place is in the Groove,” by Vivien Garry and Her All-Girl Band. The buoyant swing and effervescence that group brought to the music stirred my soul and I knew I was hearing something special. Edna Williams’ trumpet playing on that track impressed me in particular. (Unfortunately I can find very little biographical information about her and no other recordings beyond this session. If anyone has any leads on Edna Williams, please do share! I’d love to learn more about her and to hear more of her playing.)

I wish there were more readily available recordings of Ginger Smock’s playing. I know there’s an album titled, Strange Blues: Ginger Smock, The Lovely Lady with the Violin, Los Angeles Studio & Demo Recordings 1946-1958, but appears to be out of print so I’ll leave you with this gorgeous recording of Body and Soul also by the Vivien Garry Quintet to enjoy:

Ginger Smock

Re(Sources)

[1] Smock, Ginger. Black Experience as Expressed through Music (BEEM) series, Musical Heroes and Heroines in the Black Community of Southern California. By Bette Yarbrough Cox. February 24, 1983. https://archive.org/details/calauem_000206

[2] Nations, Opal Louis. “The Story of the Sepia-Tones, Ginger Smock, and Art Rube’s Juke Box Label. Blues & Rhythm 187. March 2004. http://opalnations.com/files/Ginger_Smock_The_Sepiatones_Blues_Rhythm_187_March_2004.pdff

[3] Lewis, Stephen. “The Woman with the Violin: Ginger Smock and the Los Angeles Jazz Scene.” National Museum of African American History and Culture. https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/collection/Ginger-Smock

[4] Tucker, Sherrie. “West Coast Women: A Jazz Genealogy.” Pacific Review ofEthnomusicology 8 (1996): 5–22.

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

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