Viola Smith, the trailblazing drummer once heralded as the “fastest girl drummer in the world,” has died, The Washington Post reports. She was 107 years old. According to the Post, Smith died October 21 at her home in Costa Mesa, California. The cause of death was revealed to be complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
Smith grew up in a musical household: her father was a cornetist, and her musician sisters played everything from saxophone, to violin, clarinet, and more. “There were five girls ahead of me in the family and they had the rest of the instruments,” Smith said in a 2013 interview with Tom Tom Magazine. “By the time there was a sixth one added to the family orchestra, my dad decided there should be a drum—which was great for me, because, what better instrument to play than the drums?”
Widely considered the first professional female drummer, Smith studied under Radio City Music Hall drummer Billy Gladstone. She gained recognition as the percussionist for Frances Carroll & the Coquettes, an all-female big band group that became popular in the late 1930s. She was known not only for her speed and precision, but her 12-drum kit which featured high-mounted tom-toms.
Following her tenure as a Coquette, Smith studied timpani at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, where she studied under Ed Fisher. In 1942, she penned an article for DownBeat magazine titled “Give Girl Musicians a Break!,” in which she argued that big band leaders should hire more female musicians. She also played in Phil Spitalny’s “Hour of Charm” All Girl Orchestra, as well as the Kit Kat Band jazz quartet featured in the original 1960s production of Cabaret.
During her storied career, Smith worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Webb, Bob Hope, and many others. She also performed with the NBC Symphony Orchestra and on The Ed Sullivan Show numerous times. “I’m really very thankful that I am accepted as a drummer, a girl drummer,” Smith told Tom Tom shortly after her 100th birthday. “At one time, there was no such thing.”