Book Review: Swing Sisters, The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm

Many things have been and could be said about how Facebook has altered our social relationships but sometimes, delightfully, Facebook helps us forge serendipitous connections.

From a post by my across-the-street neighbor, I learned that unknown-to-me author Karen Deans had just published a new picture book on the 1940’s all-female jazz orchestra The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. And she was giving away a copy! Of course I threw my name into the hat (actually, the fish bowl, as it turned out), but I was genuinely amazed to see my name drawn at the end of Karen’s charming video showing the beautifully-staged contest finale.

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Swing Sisters is now available in bookstores and on Amazon.

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were exceptional in many ways: originally made up of African-American orphans educated at the Piney Woods School in Mississippi, the group grew into a full jazz orchestra made up of female performers of many races. During the 1940s, the group toured the United States and in 1945 performed for troops in France and Germany as the first black women to be featured on a USO tour.

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I learned about the band last year as a part of my self-inflicted (and very limited) jazz history education, and I found their story especially fascinating. Although the Sweethearts are by no means unknown to present-day enthusiasts of swing-era jazz, very little of their music was recorded and the quality of the recordings that were made leaves much to be wished for.

Deans’ book outlines the history and challenges of the Sweethearts in simple, straight-forward text, accompanied by gorgeous, saturated illustrations by Joe Cepeda. When I showed the book to a couple of musician friends this week, their first response was to gush over the beautiful pictures (their second response was to ask where they could get a copy). Cepeda’s images convey the wonderful energy of the swing era, as well as the beauty of this diverse group of women.

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Educators and children will find lots of themes to explore in the book, including the inspirational story of disadvantaged young women forging a unique place for themselves in popular culture, the history of swing music and the history of the Jim Crow era and what its laws meant for touring performers. The message of empowerment through personal achievement, while subtle, is clear and compelling.

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As lovely as I found the book, I did wish for more of a connection to at least some of the women as individuals. Although I don’t envy a children’s author the task of balancing completeness with brevity, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I wish the book had featured two or three performers in more detail.

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While I don’t have an appropriately-aged child with whom to share this book (I would guess Swing Sisters would be appropriate for ages 7-12), I am still so very glad to own it. I have enjoyed reading it several times, and I am looking forward to sharing it more widely in the swing dance community. When Karen asked how I would like the inscription to read, I said, “Oh, please make it to me, me, me!” I have no plans to give this book away; its story and pictures, not to mention the unique way it came to me, are just too good.