Helen Jones Woods

Last month, we lost one of the last surviving members of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Trombonist, Helen Jones Woods was the adoptive daughter of Dr. Laurence Clifton Jones, who founded the Piney Woods Country Life School in 1909 against all odds to provide both academic and vocational education to the children of impoverished black sharecroppers in rural Mississippi. The school grew from a single student under a cedar tree, to what is now a 2,000 acre campus housing around 250 students from all over the world. Dr. Jones and his wife, Grace, started several musical groups to help raise money to support the school during the trying times of the Great Depression through World War II, including the Cotton Blossom Singers, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm (ISR). [1] 

Helen Jones Woods was an original member of the ISR (and its predecessor, the “Swinging Rays of Rhythm”) and remained with the group until they disbanded after more than a decade of steady touring. In fact, Woods along with Willie Mae Wong (saxophone), Sadye Pankey Moore (trumpet) and Johnny Mae Rice (piano) formed the nucleus of the band. Though her parents encouraged her to take up the violin, she was drawn to the trombone. When asked why she chose that instrument, she would answer with a chuckle, “I liked watching the slide go up and down.” 

Though she joked that she’d only practice a half an hour or so a day, historian and author, Sally Placksin, remarked that “if you hear this band, you’d know they didn’t just practice for half an hour.” They were serious musicians. Sadye Pankey Moore shared that Helen actually “practiced more than any other girl in the band… we rehearsed every day, sometimes twice a day and after we had rehearsal, most any time you could hear Helen practicing. And it paid off — she was a darn good trombone player.” To which Woods replied with a laugh “I don’t know if it paid off, I didn’t get enough money!” [2]

The Sweethearts were incredibly successful — performing regularly at the Apollo Theater in New York City and Wrigley Field in Chicago, setting a box office record in 1941 by selling 35,000 tickets at the Howard Theater in Washington DC, and sharing bills with Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. In 1944, Down Beat Magazine lauded them as “America’s number one all-female orchestra.” [3] [4] They were also well-respected by their male colleagues. According to Sadye Pankey Moore, “the men appreciated us and accepted us.” Count Basie and Louis Armstrong would come to the Apollo and listen to the Sweethearts from the wings. [5] Quincy Jones said one of the first places Ray Charles took him in Seattle was to hear the Sweethearts at an after hours juke joint. [2]

In addition to their top-notch musicianship, Woods attributes some of the success of the band to the fact that they were offering a new and different image of black women in entertainment. She says, “I think this was one of the things that made us become so popular among everybody — among blacks: to see a bunch of black schoolgirls, we had chaperones, and we had to be neat and clean, we had curfews, no drinking, and things like that.” [6] 

The peak of the ISR’s time in the limelight was a six month European tour with the USO performing for the black soldiers in 1945. They were actually the first black women to travel with the USO. [7] The ladies in the band were thrilled to have the opportunity to see the world, and to be paid for it to boot. Unfortunately, much of that money didn’t end up in the right pockets.

She may have been laughing about it later in life, but she also, as the NY Times put it, “resisted romanticizing a tough past.” They experienced plenty of racism and all the hardships that come with it while on the road, and they really were cheated out of the money they were promised for their work. In Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940’s, Sherrie Tucker relays the following account:

“While Vi Burnside takes her tenor solo, Pauline Braddy wows them on the drums, and Johnnie Mae Price lays down her neat Count Basie “Salt Peanuts” riff, Helen Jones (Woods) counts off the measures on her lead trombone part and thinks how lucky she is to see the world. One of the orphaned children raised at Piney Woods Country Life School, she joined the band to ‘get out of Mississippi’ but never expected this six month tour of Europe. She also never expected to make the $84 a week she is being paid to entertain black troops. Later, she will tell me, ‘We were just a bunch of country girls. It was the most exciting thing in the world to see another part of the world. The only sad part was Germany was mostly in ruins… We got a chance to see Paris. I think that, as a whole, the Sweethearts felt that they were very, very privileged, with our background, to have been able to see most of the United States and another country, too. That was quite an honor.’ 

Unfortunately, the $84 a week that she earned during those six months, far more than the usual salary of the original Sweethearts, never got to her. The band’s manager, Rae Lee Jones, offered to put the money in the bank since Woods did not know how to open an account. When she came back and asked for it, Jones said the she was sorry but that she’d spent the money. With nowhere else to go, Woods would wind up living with Jones in Omaha after the last spin-off group of the Sweethearts broke up in the early 1950’s. Having no other job skills and an education that ended when she was fourteen, she would study hard to become a licensed practical nurse. When she became old enough, she would try to collect the social security that the band management had skimmed from her paychecks, only to learn that social security didn’t know that the Sweethearts had ever existed.” [8]

By the time the ISR disbanded in 1949 and Woods found herself stranded in Omaha, she was considered one of the top trombonists in the country. She landed a job with the Omaha Symphony, only to be fired after one performance when management saw her darker-complected father and realized she was black. At that point, she’d had enough. Her daughter* said that “music broke her heart.” [9]

After laying down her horn, Woods went back to school to become a nurse and led a full life, working at Douglas County Hospital for over 30 years and raising four children. [9] She was inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame in 2007. [3]

Helen Jones Woods died of Covid-19 at age 96 on July 25th, 2020. She asked that in lieu of flowers or cards, others should make a contribution to the Piney Woods School, which you can do here: To that end, the Jones family shares one of Woods’ favorite sayings: “Never give a person credit for what they have done when cash would be more appropriate.”

She may not have considered herself a pioneer, but her music and story are an integral part of our history and should be celebrated.

*Incidentally, Woods’ daughter, Kathy Hughes is a successful entrepreneur, radio and television personality, and business executive. She founded Radio One and became the first black woman to head a publicly traded corporation.

If you’d like to learn more about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and hear more of their stories, check out this short documentary:

And this wonderful panel discussion:

And of course, you must listen to their music as well! Here is a playlist.

(Re)sources:

[1] About the Founder: Laurence Clifton Jones. The Piney Woods School. pineywoods.org. (https://www.pineywoods.org/about/history.cfm)

[2] Sally Placksin and Cathy Hughs, moderators, Women in Jazz: International Sweethearts of Rhythm. (Panel discussion at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. April 10, 2011). https://youtu.be/_Cjmg8Jepvw

[3] Jimmie E. Gates, “Piney Woods School Rememberers Pioneering Jazz Musician Helen Jones Woods.” Mississippi Clarion Ledger, Aug. 4, 2020. https://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/2020/08/04/helen-jones-woods-musician-piney-woods-dies/5568676002/

[4] John Leland, “Those We’ve Lost: Helen Jones Woods, Member of an All-Female Jazz Group, Dies at 96.” New York Times, Aug. 4, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/04/obituaries/Helen-Woods-dead-coronavirus.html

[5] International Sweethearts of Rhythm: America’s Hottest All-Girl Band. Produced and Directed by Greta Schiller & Andrea Weiss. New York: Jezebel Productions,1986.

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

[7] Wikipedia contributors, “International Sweethearts of Rhythm,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=International_Sweethearts_of_Rhythm&oldid=951822990

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

[9] Nate Chinen, “Helen Jones Woods, Groundbreaking Female Trombonist, Has Died From Covid-19.” NPR, Aug. 5, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/08/05/899489411/helen-jones-woods-groundbreaking-female-trombonist-has-died-from-covid-19

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