Billie Rogers

Ladies and gentleman, here’s Billie Rogers, an excellent trumpet player and singer who played in Woody Herman’s band from 1941-1943. I thoroughly enjoyed her interview in the Girls in the Band documentary and was excited to learn more about her.

She was raised mainly in Ranier, Washington in a musical family who had a band called “Smith’s Ranier Entertainers” which consisted of Billie’s father, mother, brother Les, herself, and a drummer they hired. (Incidentally, she was born Zelda Louise Smith, but she later adopted the name Billie and her first husband was a fellow named Rogers.) According to Wikipedia, “Both she and her brother, Les, were born with perfect pitch, a fact that neither had realized until she was 8 and he was 12. They had both assumed that everyone heard music the way they did. Their parents were astounded and didn’t even know what to call it.” [1]

When she was 24 or so, she moved to Los Angeles and was working in Culver City when Woody Herman’s road manager stopped by and heard her. He invited her to audition for Herman who hired her on the spot. She is “credited as the first woman to hold a horn position in a major jazz orchestra.” [1] In The Girls in the Band, Billie tells this great story about the night she was invited to sit up in the trumpet section instead of in front of the band with the other female singer:

Woody came to me during the intermission and asked me if I’d like to sit up in the trumpet section. Needless to say, I wasn’t about to turn that down! Well, the lead trumpet player decided he was going to get rid of me but fast. He set up this ridiculous riff, you know, using the derby hat. And the derby hat was going up, it was going down, it was going sideways, and everything he could think of. Well, surprise, surprise, I kept up with ‘em! From that day on, I sat up in the trumpet section. I never ever went down in front of the band again. We all owe a debt to Woody Herman for opening the door for women in jazz. [2]

After leaving the Woody Herman band, she formed her own orchestra and ended up working in New York, in the middle of all the action, sitting in with the likes of Dizzy Gilespie, etc. She worked with the Jerry Wald band in 1944-45 and then left to form her own sextet. [3] “Rogers says that her most enjoyable gig was playing with the Tommy Pederson Band at the Hollywood Palladium on Monday nights, plus other miscellaneous gigs in the Los Angeles area.” [1]

A choice quote from a Billboard article of the day (Billie was on the cover of this issue with the caption, “Billie Rogers: the Girl With the Horn Now Fronts Her Own”):

…now, because she’s solid as a musician as well as decoration in front of a band, Billie Rogers, her trumpet and her orchestra are on their way to places — key location spots. They’re spots she’s known when she played with Woody and they’ll be welcoming back the first girl sideman they ever featured with a name band. She’s U. of Montana and knows what the campus crowd wants. She sings as well as she plays that trumpet and the band really rides with her. Yes, Billie Rogers is on her way to prove that a top band can be and will be fronted by a fem.” (Sept. 9, 1944) [4]

Regardless of this great success, Rogers semi-retired from show business in 1947 to raise a family with her husband, Jack Archer (Woody Herman’s road manager who initially discovered her and got her the audition). In American Women in Jazz Sally Placksin refers to a Downbeat interview from the ’40s in which Rogers talks about the fact that most women at the time “usually [thought] of their careers as a premarital state.” She said, “I certainly don’t intend making this my life’s work and most of the other girls I know feel that way, too.” Placksin goes on to write, “Clearly. for women at this time, career (or art) and family life were considered so mutually exclusive that the pressure to sacrifice one for the other went unquestioned, at least in this instance.” [5]

Rogers did form her own groups and continued working with them well into the fifties. [6] It is hard to imagine devoting so much time, energy, and spirit to developing a craft and then to leave it altogether. Here is a playlist featuring some of her recordings. She was still giving interviews and corresponding with fans until her death in 2014 at age 97.

(Re)sources

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Billie Rogers,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Billie_Rogers&oldid=877334834 (accessed January 20, 2019).

[2] Judy Chaikin, dir. The Girls in the Band. 2011; Topanga, CA: Artist Tribe/One Step. (http://catalog.library.txstate.edu/record=b2861227~S1a).

[3] David Lobosco. “Billie Rogers: Big Band Pioneer.” A Trip Down Memory Lane. October 3, 2012. (http://greatentertainersarchives.blogspot.com/2012/10/billie-rogers-big-band-pioneer.html).

[4] “Billie Rogers: The Girl with a Horn Now Fronts Her Own.” The Billboard. September 9, 1944. (https://books.google.com/books?id=hwwEAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PT3&dq=billie%20rogers%20trumpet&pg=PT3#v=onepage&q=billie%20rogers%20trumpet&f=false).

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

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

“Billie Rogers Joins Jerry Wald’s Band.” The Billboard. March 10, 1945. (https://books.google.com/books?id=xREEAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PT20&dq=billie%20rogers%20trumpet&pg=PT20#v=onepage&q=billie%20rogers%20trumpet&f=false).

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