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All That Jazz

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By Arianna Ramos
Around the time that the United States entered World War II, posters with Rosie the Riveter proclaiming, “We Can Do It!,” were strewn everywhere to inspire women to do their patriotic duty by joining the workforce. Millions of women went to work in the factories, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was created, and the almost-forgotten female jazz sensation, the Prairie View Co-Eds, toured the United States.

In 1943, as male band players at Prairie View College (now Prairie View AM University) were being drafted for U.S. war efforts, the historically black Southeast Texas school held an open-call for female musical talent. Previously, women were not allowed to play in the band, “because playing music wasn’t something a lady should be engaged in,” according to a book by Sherrie Tucker.

This 16-piece, all-female jazz band quickly became a huge hit, performing at black colleges and theaters in the South during the Jim Crow era, at New York’s Apollo Theater, and for the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black squadron of military aviators.

“We went from Florida to New York, all the way up the East Coast and [the] Central United States,” says Ernie Mae Miller, who played the baritone saxophone with the Co-Eds. “It was really an experience.”

Along the way, the Co-Eds crossed paths with Bob Hope in Alabama and Billie Holiday in Missouri. After college, many of the members remained musicians. Clora Bryant, a trumpet player, got the opportunity to play with music legend Dizzy Gillespie. Helen Cole, who played the drums, formed her own quartet, and Miller has been entertaining Austin audiences with her piano-playing for roughly 40 years.

When the war ended and the men returned, the Prairie View Co-Eds disbanded. Unfortunately, the group never made any recordings, but those who were lucky enough to catch a show remember those young women fondly.

Read times Last modified on Friday, 13 July 2012 13:06
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