With female jazz musicians as rare as they are, Anna Mae Winburn is doubly unusual. She was not only a member of one of the rare all-female jazz bands in the genre's history, she was the leader of the outfit as well -- promoting her to the incredibly rare status of a female jazz bandleader. The opportunity for this only came about, sadly enough, because the Second World War had removed so many male musicians from circulation. While women in general enjoyed new working opportunities as a result, female jazz players were not about to slouch off either. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was formed as a result and became a popular group, boasting excellent charts by Jesse Stone and Eddie Durham. The group was formed in 1939 at the Piney Wooks Country Life School in Mississippi but made its debut at a much more prestigious venue, the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. In between came a complete change in philosophy. While the group was originally formed on an amateur basis to support the Mississippi school, a decision was eventually made to sever ties with that organization and move the band north, hiring more professional players to beef up the sound. Winburn hooked up with the group several years later and became the leader from 1941 on. Previously she had been a collaborator of Lloyd Hunter, an interesting and innovative Mississippi bandleader, arranger, and composer who formed all-female groups off and on throughout his career. Winburn had been fronting the Lloyd Hunter Serenaders and had also been involved with several other Hunter projects.
Her roots were in Nebraska, where she was one of the only female bandleaders fronting what are often known as territory bands, or groups whose touring activities and popularity were geographically limited to several adjoining states. Her Nebraska activities included leading the Cotton Club Boys based out of Omaha, NE, a group that at one point included the amazing guitarist Charlie Christian. Once a "sweetheart," Winburn stayed on in the leader's role until the group folded in the late '40s. The membership of the group is a fascinating list of female jazz players who obviously came and went without leaving that much of a historical trace on the jazz scene. The list includes Ernestine "Tiny" Davis, Ray Carter, Johnnie Mae Stansbury, and Edna Williams, trumpeters all; Marge Pettiford, Amy Garrison, Helen Saine, Grace Bayron, Willie Mae Wong, and Viola Burnside on saxophones; Judy Bayron, Helen Jones, and Ina Bell Byrd on trombones; and a rhythm section featuring Lucille Dixon on bass, Roxanna Lucas on guitar, Johnnie Mae Rice on piano, and Pauline Braddy on the drums. Evelyn McGee shared vocal duties with Winburn, who was sometimes too distracted conducting the musicians to burst into song. "I don't know whether or not I can get along with that many women or not," was apparently the first concern on Winburn's mind when she first got together with the group.
It was the first racially integrated women's band and played to primarily black audiences in theaters and ballrooms throughout the United States. At one Howard Theater show, the band set a new box office record of 35,000 patrons in one week of 1941. Yet the impact of this group should not be cheapened simply by quoting attendance statistics. It was an incredible example of Latina, Asian, Caucasian, black, Indian, and Puerto Rican women coming together and making music that was fully on the level of anything being played in the swing era. The group's music was widely admired by musical peers, including the likes of jazz giants Count Basie and Louis Armstrong. Satchmo even tried lure trumpet player Davis away from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm by offering her ten times the moolah. The female group was certainly cheated on the amount of exposure to mainstream audiences it received in the South as the good-old-boy network obviously like the idea all-white, male big bands better. When Winburn did head South with the group, the white women in the group blackened their faces so the police would not arrest them right on the bandstand. In 1946, the group appeared in the film Jump Children. Generations after the group's heyday, interest continues to flourish and several documentary films have been produced about the band, including one simply entitled The International Sweethearts of Rhythm and another with the more vivid name of Tiny and Ruby: Hell-Divin' Women.