Black History Month: The International Sweethearts of Rhythm

For Black History Month, the gar spot will focus on a handful of the many gifted and talented black women instrumentalist who play jazz.

Many can easily rattle off a list of some of the biggest names from the Swing Era. Count Basie. Duke Ellington. Fletcher Henderson. Benny Goodman. Artie Shaw. Lionel Hampton. But one of the biggest names of the period rarely appears on most big band lists. Indeed, many folks have never heard of them.

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was one of the most successful all-women bands from the Swing Era and one of the biggest names in the business. At their height, they packed venues and sent folks into a Lindy hop ecstasy.

The group started as a bunch of kids playing music together: Evelyn McGee, vocals, Pauline Braddy, drums, Willie Mae Wong, baritone sax, Irene Grisham, tenor sax, Ione Grisham, alto sax, Johnnie Mae Rice, piano, and Helen Jones, trombone. They all attended the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. The school’s founder, Dr. Laurence C. Jones, Helen’s father, encouraged the young musicians to start playing swing. The group played at school functions and locally, then later, as their acclaim grew, they began playing regionally.

By 1941, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm adopted their famous name, expanded to 17 members, and set out on their own. A multiracial group featuring Asian-American, Latina-American, Native American, as well as African-American and white musicians, they mostly played in black venues from Central Avenue clubs in Los Angeles to the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Audiences loved them and quickly learned that they were not just a novelty act, but serious musicians with hella chops. They knew the music and swung it hard. Newspapers gave them glowing reviews, though usually with the “compliment” that they played “just like men.” 

They traveled the country by bus, including into the Deep South. Pianist and bandleader Earl Fatha Hines would later call the Sweethearts “the first Freedom Riders.” When Duke Ellington took his first trip to the South, he hired a railway car for the band to travel and lodge in, so that they could avoid the indignities of Jim Crow. Similarly, the Sweethearts stayed on a custom-built sleeper bus—built by members of the Piney Woods school. No hotels would put them up nor would restaurants serve the multiracial group. White members, like saxophonist Rosalind Cron, learned that she would be treated like her bandmates of color—refused service at restaurants and the like—if she stayed with them. She chose to stay with the Sweethearts.

During an interview session at the Smithsonian in 2011 with some surviving members of the Sweethearts, one of the musicians recalled that they received more respect from black musicians than from white ones. The white boys ignored them, she said. In general, the Sweethearts were better known in the black community than the white community. As noted, they tended to play in black owned and operated clubs. However, in 1945, the Sweethearts went to Europe and played for the troops, black and white, in France and Germany.

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm lasted through the swing era, breaking up in 1949. Most big bands broke up by that time. Musical tastes had migrated from large jazz ensembles to small rhythm and blues and later rock and roll groups. Jazz similarly turned towards smaller groups, playing bebop and by the 50s hard bop. And despite the Sweethearts’ popularity during their active years, once gone they fell into obscurity. Only starting in the Women’s Rights movement of the 60s and 70s did they enjoy a resurgence of interest into their music and history.

Not many of the Sweethearts’ recordings survive. But here is a Best Of album available on Spotify.

Here is video of them playing on the bandstand:

Camp Witnesses

As World War II came to a close, Allied troops made German citizens who lived in towns near recently liberated concentration camps go to these places of torture to see the horrors their government committed in their names. I remember as a kid seeing a photo of horrified German citizens walking past corpses. I’m not sure if the image above is the one I saw as a kid, but it was similar. In the photo I saw long ago, a woman had a look of horror on her face, much like the woman in this image above. That look of shame and horror has stayed with me.

McAllen, TX

In the last year, our government committed atrocities in our name. In camps made of canvas or concrete, US agencies kept migrant children from Central America in cages. They beat the children to get them to stop crying. They kept them separated from their families. Some of the children were toddlers with little or no language skills. What language did they learn in a cage in a camp? Two children died in custody. This ugliness happened in our name.

McAllen, TX

The US has a long history of separating children from their families in communities considered “undesirable.” Slaveowners ripped babies from their mothers soon after birth, to be sold into bondage elsewhere, like fruit plucked from a tree. Native Americans saw their children taken from them, raised far away, separate and apart from their own families and culture. 

We don’t talk much about these atrocities. When something doesn’t get talked about, it vanishes. When it vanishes, it repeats again and again. 

How do we stop repeating this evil? What will finally make us see the horrors done in our name, that we may never do them again?

Tornillo, TX

A History of MAGA Kids

I had my MAGA kid moment many years ago, also while playing drums. 

One summer day, long ago, I sat on the lawn near Morrison Hall, home of the Music Department at UC Berkeley, and played tabla. Back in the day, when I took summer tabla classes with Maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain, I often would take my tabla outside during lunchtime and practice the latest lessons. I wanted to sound somewhat proficient at that evening’s class. Zakir ji called the compositions he taught us “basic stuff.” I called them finger-twisters. But when I practiced regularly, and turned off my worrying mind, my fingers often knew what to do.

I probably ended up near Hertz because the lawns near the Law School, where I worked, were damp from watering or kisses of morning dew, unable or unwilling to let go of the blades of grass. I didn’t want to get my butt, or worse my instrument wet, so I drifted northward. The pathways held the usual noontime traffic, students leaving one class to another or to lunch. I just kept playing, into what I was doing. And then he showed up. Tall, white, wearing shorts, he looked at me playing and then started shouting things. Or maybe he was chanting things. I tried not to pay attention. I wanted to remain in my zone. I kept playing.

But he continued. Though he stood at a distance, I felt uncomfortable. He wanted a reaction, and I wouldn’t give it to him. Finally, he struck a pose, the crane-like pose that the Karate Kid took in one of the movies, one leg raised and his arms over his head. He wasn’t close enough to hit me, but it still made me feel very uncomfortable. He was laughing. I kept playing. Finally, he got mad that I wouldn’t engage with him, said something snarky about not taking a joke, and departed. 

A joke? To him, perhaps. It clearly was meant to be at my expense. I’ve had folks snap their fingers or even dance while I played. That wasn’t what this dude was about. He didn’t get into what I was doing, he simply mocked it. I could see it in his eyes and self-satisfied smirk. Someone playing music in front of the music building should not have caused such derision. At the same time, I think that if I had been playing Brahms on a cello, he still would have found ways to make sport of it. But a black dude sitting crosslegged on the ground playing hand drums? Fodder too good to pass up.

This incident occurred in the early 90s. How deeply disturbing that nearly 30 years later, in Washington, DC, another drummer, a Native American elder, had his dignity accosted by a white kid awash with privilege. How often has Mr. Nathan Phillips had the eyes of hate invade his space? How often has he had to deflect hostility while simply existing?

Truth be told, MAGA kids have existed throughout the history of this country. They ruthlessly targeted and slaughtered Mr. Phillips’s ancestors. They sneered at 6 year-old Ruby Bridges when she tried to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans, Louisiana. They glared at young black folks sitting at white lunch counters. They burned white with rage while beating Rodney King on the ground. They smirked with contempt while spitting on Congressman John Lewis just a few short years ago as he walked out of the Capitol, a building he has worked in for decades. In 1965 when he was a young man, Congressman Lewis endured a near fatal beating while marching for voter rights on the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The MAGA kids that spat on him probably didn’t know, or didn’t care.

A MAGA kid sits in the White House. He began his presidential campaign with the words, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” while speaking about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Now he wants to building a wall on the Mexico-US border, a monument in celebration of everything MAGA kids hold dear, a symbol of hate and intolerance.

Mr. Phillips’s silent bravery in the face of hate recalls the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And we should celebrate his resilience along with Dr. King’s. But do me a favor. Don’t spend this King holiday weekend quoting “I Have A Dream” unless you are willing to do the hard work of thinking about what you have done or haven’t done to make the dream of personhood for all peoples a reality. The MAGA kid who harassed Mr. Phillips clearly hasn’t done this. I doubt anyone in his life has guided him toward such wisdom.

If we don’t have a conversation about racism, white privilege, hate, and all their manifestations, then 50 years from now we will still have MAGA kids among us, because we will have done nothing to prevent their continued creation.

Kevin Hart Hasn’t Apologized

Folks like Kevin Hart are exactly why I wrote SIN AGAINST THE RACE. Nothing hurts more than when straight, cis black folks turn against their own because of anti-LGBTQ bigotry and hatred.

Nothing he has said or done has made up for the vile remarks he made during his comedy routines or in his tweets. In fact, his “apologies,” including his appears on The Ellen Show, have been all about him, his career, his life, a symphony of “I, Me, Mine.”

Hatred of the sort he spouted emboldens others to commit atrocities against LGBTQ folks. Black transgender women in particular, like transgender women of color across the country, are the frequent targets of violence.

A true apology would include acknowledging this reality and an unambiguous commitment to combat the violence and end it, to save the lives of the most vulnerable members of our community.

I frankly don’t really care whether he hosts the Oscars or not. That’s not the point. The point is that we don’t need another black celebrity normalizing anti-queer hatred and then refusing to own it when he gets called on it.

Until he owns his past and acknowledges how hurtful his words have been to the black LGBTQ community in particular, he has not apologized. He’s simply trying to save his career from criticism. And that’s nowhere near good enough.

Reading: Alfonso’s Birthday

December 16 is the birthday of my fictional character Alfonso Rutherford Berry, III, protagonist for my novel Sin Against the Race. So to mark the occasion, I read parts of the book that reflect upon Alfonso’s 21st, which he spent in hospital. Earlier in the book, police beat him while he tabled at a needle exchange next to Huckleberry Park, putting him in a coma. His father, Ford Berry, never approved of the needle exchange, so as Alfonso lost consciousness, he thought his father had set the police on him as punishment for defying him. The reading deals with the aftermath of all that, and the regrets Ford experiences.

You can hear a little snippet of music during an early part of the reading, “Alleybird” by Anton Schwartz from his classic 2014 album Flash Mob. A slow, expressive blues, for me the tune captures all of the regrets and laments Ford experiences in light of what happened to his son. At this point, he finally starts to put two and two together and question what part he played in his son’s tragedy. Flash Mob was a mainstay for me while writing this book. Buy this great album!

Finally, some exciting news: Sin Against the Race appears on Out in Print‘s Best of 2018 list. I am humbled and honored for this recognition.  Here is the video of the reading. Enjoy!

Posted by Gar McVey-Russell on Sunday, December 16, 2018

World AIDS Day 2018 Reading

For World AIDS Day this past Saturday, December 1, I read an excerpt from my novel Sin Against the Race. The story involves Alfonso Rutherford Berry, III, a young black gay man coming into his own, mourning the loss of his cousin Carlton, a long term AIDS survivor. Here, taken from Chapter 20, Alfonso explains to his African-American Sociology class how Carlton actually died. Check it out!

Click here to learn where you can purchase a copy of the book.

I’m wearing my old ACT UP/East Bay t-shirt. The group started in 1989 in my apartment at that time. We addressed several issues related to AIDS in Oakland and Berkeley, including access to care and education about the disease. My involvement in ACT UP continues to inform much of my writing, including Sin Against the Race.

One of our co-founders, John Iversen, himself a long-term survivor, passed away in early October. John was a stalwart activist for AIDS, healthcare, Native American rights, and many other progressive issues. And he was a supportive friend. I dedicate this reading to him.



Reading Event: Perfectly Queer, Tuesday, Nov. 13

I’ll be reading with Rick and Wayne’s Perfectly Queer November event at Dog Eared Books, Castro next Tuesday, November 13 at 7pm. The date falls on Rick’s birthday and we’ll be celebrating. Join us for readings, wine, and cake! The theme of this reading is friendship. My novel Sin Against the Race is about the friendships my main character Alfonso develops during the story. So come check out my selection.

Other readers include Wayne Goodman, Michael Alenyikov, Genanne Walsh, Alvin Orloff, Rob Rosen, and Rick himself. Please come eat, drink, and by books!

Perfectly Queer “Rick’s Most Excellent Birthday Reading”
Tuesday, November 13 @ 7:00 PM
Dog Eared Books
489 Castro Street, SF

Doctor Who Meets Rosa Parks

Image: BBC

Doctor Who answered the challenge of Brexit and Trump in a big way with the third story of the current series, “Rosa,” cowritten by show-runner Chris Chibnall and children and young adult writer Malorie Blackman. The TARDIS crew set down in Montgomery, Alabama on November 30, 1955, one day before Mrs. Parks celebrated one-woman bus sit-in. Visiting historic figures and events is nothing new for Doctor Who. Indeed, in its original conception, Who was meant to be a semi-educational children’s show. But this visit was special, not just because of Rosa Parks, but also because the current TARDIS crew has never been more diverse. And their different backgrounds informed and enhanced the story.

Spoilers, sweetie.




The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) currently travels with Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh), Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), and Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole). Imagine this group walking around together in the Jim Crow South: a white woman (wearing pants), an older white man, a South Asian woman, and a young black man.

Ryan immediately gets into trouble when he innocently picks up a dropped hankie and tries to give it back to its owner, a white woman. The woman’s husband responds violently by slapping him and threatening worse. You don’t molest a white woman, boy, he warns the stunned Ryan. Rosa Parks happens along and defuses the situation, acting obsequiously to the offended white man, as blacks had to at that time. She also assures him that the garment of his that she was working on will be ready on time. When the white couple leaves, she scolds Ryan, reminding him that Emmett Till had met his end for crossing a white woman just the year prior.

This tense opener beautifully captures the brutality of the era. Though no one drops the n-word, you’d swear that you heard it.

Later, the foursome retreat to a local bar to assess their situation. Oops. Oblivious to Jim Crow laws and mores, they instantly become the subject of suspicion and hatred. The folks in the bar take exception to Ryan the Colored Boy and Yasmin the “Mexican”—a wonderful touch. And Graham, who was married to Ryan’s black grandmother until her death, complicates things greatly by identifying Ryan as his grandson. And the only thing worse than a n****r is a n****r lover. Towns folk quickly label the group troublemakers and the police monitor their movements. 

Using her trusty sonic screwdriver, the Doctor ultimately discovers evidence that someone is trying to tamper with history. This leads her to Krasko, a foe from the future. After serving time for murder, he managed to get a wrist time-travel devise (of the type Capt. Jack Harkness wore), a ray-gun that blasts people to another time, and other temporal toys. He uses them with the expressed purpose of preventing Rosa Parks’s famous sit-in from happening on December 1.

I found Krasko a most disturbing villain, far more so than Daleks or Cybermen or even the Master/Missy. Because Kraskos really exist. A Krasko current sits in the White House. Kraskos bearing tiki torches and Nazi and Confederate flags marched through Charlottesville, Virginia to promote White Power. Kraskos made the Brexit campaign all about “us versus them.” Our world today has emboldened Kraskos and we continue to feel their wrath on an almost daily basis. Just a week after this episode aired, a man attempted to mail pipe bombs to various Democratic leaders and CNN, folks on Trump’s “enemies list.” And another man opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during service, murdering 11 and wounding 9 all while shouting “all Jews must die.”

The Krasko character painfully reminds us that people with his mindset remain with us, decades after the fall of the Third Reich. And that they will likely remain with us well into the future.

While hiding from the police behind a dumpster in an alley, Yasmin and Ryan share a wonderful scene where they discuss racism, comparing their lives to life in the Jim Crow South. Ryan wonders if what Rosa Parks did ultimately changed anything. The police stop me on the streets more than my mates, he complains. And Yasmin, a police officer herself, says that she does not receive as much respect as she would if she weren’t Pakistani-British. But she also believes that things are better than they had been. Case in point, a story like this would never have been made in 1955. And if it had, television stations in the South likely would have boycotted it—like they did the infamous Star Trek episode where Kirk and Uhura kissed.

I should also note how much I am enjoying Whittaker’s Doctor. She has an infectious spark of energy, the right amount of moral outrage—a key ingredient for any Doctor—and a strong sense of purpose. With her returns the unabashed do-good Doctor. And in these times, we really, really need that. We need a hero.

A Doctor Who story like “Rosa” could only come about because Chris Chibnall took risks. He hired the first female actor to play the Doctor. He gave her a very diverse group to travel with. And hiring Ms. Blackman, whose fiction explores racism in dystopian settings, brought diversity behind the camera as well as in front of it. We need this type of programming more than ever, with Kraskos trying to reverse generations of social justice history.

“Rosa” represents Doctor Who at its finest.

Queer Words Podcast Interview

Author Wayne Goodman has hosted singly and with his partner author Rick May various literary readings in the Bay Area. He has now launched a new venture: Queer Words Podcast. Premiering this month, the podcast features Wayne talking with queer writers about their work, their influences, and how their queer identity shapes what they write. He asked me if I would like to participate, and I was happy to say yes.

Here is a link to the episode featuring yours truly. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. You can also find Queer Words Podcast on iTunes and Google Play. Check out all of their episodes. The first features Rick and the second features Natasha Dennerstein. Look for new episodes in the coming weeks. Subscribe today!

San Francisco Lit Crawl 2018 – Musical Muses

Crawl on over to San Francisco this coming Saturday, October 20 and check out Lit Crawl 2018. Lots of folks will be reading at various venues, including yours truly.

I will read in the session Musical Muses: BARtab’s Tenth Lit Crawl Event from 5pm – 6pm at Martuni’s, 4 Valencia St. Organized by Jim Provenzano, this event features works that include music. I’ll be reading from Sin Against the Race, which features a lot of music. After we read, pianist Suzanne Beignet Ramsey, aka Kitten on the Keys, will send us off with an appropriate musical selection. This should be a lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to it.

Other authors reading in this session are Bud Gundy, Trebor Healey, Kathy Knowles, and K.R. Morrison.

Come join us for an evening of jazz and cocktails!

Musical Muses: BARtab’s Tenth Lit Crawl Event
Saturday, October 20, at 5pm
Martuni’s, 4 Valencia Street