It’s the Eurovision Song Contest this Saturday (which I hope you’re all going to watch) and so in good taste, I’m going to do a post about something that definitely is NOT related to Eurovision. Meet Ernestine “Tiny” Davis, not the murderer electrocuted on death row, but the very cool singer/ jazz trumpet player.
I first came across her in a documentary called Tiny & Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women from 1988. It was an extra on a DVD documentary called Before Stonewall about the American gay community before the Stonewall riots that took place on June 28 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, Greenwich Village.
Here is a shortened version of the docu:
Tiny Davis played the trumpet most famously in the band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, during the 1940s. They were quite an individual group of women, mainly because they “abandoned” their children and husbands to tour and play – something which was highly frowned upon in those days. They were the first integrated all women’s band that existed in the USA and started out when members of the Piney Woods Country Life School for poor and African American children, the majority of which were orphans, got together to play swing and jazz. Here they are in full swing (my favourite is Jump Children):
Tiny joined the Sweethearts when Jessie Stone took over as composer in 1941, and sought out more professional musicians to play alongside the less experienced members. The band itself was not only multi-talented, but multi-racial, an important thing in segregated America. When they toured the country, they practically lived on the tour bus – practised, studied, slept there – mainly because they couldn’t stay in hotels due to the segregation policy. In the documentary, Tiny speaks about the fact that even though some of the women in the Sweethearts were in heterosexual relationships – married with children – they would still get together with the other female musicians when on tour. She herself was in a relationship with Ruby Lucas, a fellow Hell Divers band member – the band that Tiny formed after the Sweethearts. They were adopted as heroes of the gay rights movement, and during the 1950s they ran a bar in Chicago called Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot. They even have a song on their Hot Licks album called Diggin’ Dykes.
Tiny was highly talented, but being a woman, she was rarely taken seriously. Strangely, World War II helped a lot of female musicians, especially the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, into the spotlight simply because male musicians were away at war. Of course, this meant that when the war finished, the Sweethearts had fewer gigs, and is one of the main reasons they disbanded by 1949. Tiny was such a brilliant musician, she was considered the female Louis Armstrong. In fact, he even tried to hire her away from the Sweethearts, but she turned him down, and when asked why later, she said, “I loved them gals too much.” Following the Sweethearts, Tiny went on to other musical projects. She died in 1994 at the age of 87.
A final quote of hers from the book Queer America:
“I don’t like to hear that ‘plays like a girl’ or ‘plays like a sissy’. I had more chops than most men… So no, we never got the credit we deserved. But women have a hard time in anything. There’s nothing you can do. Just keep on keeping on.”
Well said, Tiny.