Swing music saw its heyday in the 1930s, through the end of World War II. As the 20th century rolled into the 21st, swing enjoyed a revival as fleeting as it was energetic.
Whether dancers did the Lindy Hop at a USO show in 1942, or at the now-shuttered Velvet nightclub in the 1990s, the syncopated rhythm of swing has kept generations of toes tapping.
Today a quartet of local women, the Queens of Swing, tour the St. Louis area mixing their talent and lifelong love of music with a dash of well-researched history.
Pat Treacy of South St. Louis tickles the ivories, South County resident Mary Ann Schulte keeps the rhythm on bass guitar, while Sydell Pollack and Mary Weber, both of University City, play drums and trumpet, respectively. This all-woman band reminds their audiences of a time when all the men went off to war.
During World War II, women stepped into many roles previously filled by men, filling voids left in the workforce and entertainment world.
“The women were working in the factories, playing professional baseball and making music,” said Schulte. “There were all-girl bands that toured the whole country.”
The Queens of Swing do more than keep the musical integrity of the 1940s-era girl groups. They include a narrative that highlights the history of the genre and the stories of female swing musicians, including famed drummer Viola Smith. Smith played drums professionally during the swing era and beyond; at 103 years old she is still an endorser for Zildjian cymbals.
While music pioneer Smith started her career as a young woman in a band made up of her sisters that was together by her father, The Queens of Swing had lengthy individual musical careers before they came together.
Trumpeter Mary Weber has played with several symphonies, including the St. Louis Symphony, and performed with diverse musicians from Luciano Pavarotti to The Temptations. In addition to her Queens of Swing schedule, she plays and records with The Clarion Brass.
She also uses her talent and experience to benefit young musicians in the Kirkwood and Webster Groves school districts, where she teaches private trumpet lessons.
“Mary, who plays trumpet, plays with Clarion Brass; I went to the Sheldon and heard her play there,” said Treacy. “I talked to her after the concert, and she has been playing with us for a year-and-a-half now. She plays everything and does everything!”
Sydell Pollack has been a drummer since childhood, but her college degree is in painting. She sees a connection between the two art forms.
“When we play, we are communicating with the audience,” Pollack said. “A painting can take years to create in a studio, but music is immediate.
“A drum beat can affect others, and when you perform, you want them to dance. I see the audience singing, dancing, clapping and I know we have succeeded; that’s what it’s all about.”
“People love watching Sydell,” added Schulte. “She’s so colorful!”
Mary Ann Schulte has been a musician for much of her life, and even met her husband when they played together with The St. Louis Stompers.
“He plays tuba,” Schulte said. “My main instrument is piano, which is how Pat and I knew each other. She called me about the Queens of Swing, but the last time I played bass guitar was in high school!”
“Mary Ann is well-known locally, so when I had the idea for an all-girl band, I called her,” explained Treacy. “We do piano duets, too, and she also plays the accordion.”
Treacy started playing classical piano when she was 5 years old, and took up jazz in high school. After marriage and motherhood, she temporarily bowed out of public performances, but continued to play at home. She enjoys playing with the Queens, but the history also appeals to her.
“I’m a history buff, and this is an extension of that – researching the history and fitting it into the music,” she said.
The Queens of Swing are keeping busy with gigs all around the area.
“We had 32 gigs last year – so we celebrate a successful season,” said Treacy. “We have great fun and that is transmitted to our audience.”
Their gigs include Orchard House in Webster Groves, Aberdeen Heights in Kirkwood; church groups, historical societies, Cape Albeon in Valley Park, and even the Sisters at Mother of Perpetual Help on Watson.
“What’s good about the Queens of Swing is that we all have areas we are good in. Between us, we combine and get a good product,” explained Pollack.
“We are a sisterhood,” said Treacy. “We enjoy each other’s company and enjoy playing together. We have never had a bomb; a year-and-a-half together and never bombed!”
For more information on the Queens of Swing, visit the band’s facebook page at www.facebook.com/The-Queens-of-Swing.