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Anthony Barnett


This article was published with photos in Shuffle Boil, nos 5/6, Berkeley CA, Listening Chamber, 2006

This posting includes some amendments

A repressing of the Baker CD Document noted below now includes correct personnel details for Rivera and Williams

However, better by far transfers are now available on Josephine Baker CD-R Truesound Transfers TT-3070 (which improves even further on previous TT-2464)
which gives a precise date, though still open to a little questioning, of 20 November 1926

Copyright © Anthony Barnett 2005–2012


The First Black Woman Violinist on Disc?

Until quite recently it was believed that the first identified recordings by a woman performing hot improvisations on the violin were by Stuff Smith’s protegée Ginger Smock (with Joe Alexander acc. Red Callender for Excelsior in 1946 followed by with Vivien Garry for RCA Victor in 1946); that among numerous 1920s–1930s recorded vaudeville, jazz and blues violinists, black or white, not one was a woman.

Thanks to the diligence of several people this is now known not to be true. A few years ago fellow researcher Howard Rye drew my attention to a session by Joséphine Baker recorded in Paris in October or November 1926. As well as Baker’s vocals the four songs feature extended obbligatos and solos, blending hot saw riffs and deep chords with legitimate technique, by a remarkably accomplished violinist, listed in discographies and liner notes as unidentified, along with a pianist erroneously listed as Jacques Fray, one of Baker’s known accompanists the following year. That these recordings had escaped attention until their inclusion in the new edition of Blues and Gospel Recordings, 1890-1943 (Clarendon, Oxford, 1997) is explained by the reluctance of many purists to include any of Baker’s recordings in the jazz or blues canon.

Rye and I were convinced that Baker’s violinist on these songs could not be European. We examined every possibility we could think of including a number of black violinists known to be in Europe at the time: British James Boucher (not hot enough from comparison with known recordings); Louia Jones (no known recordings for comparison despite sometime membership of and photos with Noble Sissle’s Orchestra), Ralph Shrimp Jones and George Smith (with the Plantation Orchestra). Aurally, the saw riffs of Baker’s violinist appeared to resemble glimpses of George Smith’s work on recordings with James Reece Europe’s Society Orchestra in 1913-1914, and with the Plantation Revue Orchestra, directed by Shrimp Jones, in London in December 1926. But the violinist could not be Smith or Jones because the Plantation Revue had arrived in England in September where it stayed for several months.

Fortuitously, a chance remark about Baker’s session in correspondence with German researcher Rainer Lotz uncovered the truth. The original French Odeon 78s do not name Baker’s accompanists, but a freak withdrawn issue viewed by Lotz in a Czech collection (a second copy has since come to light) does: a disc from the immediately preceding, unrelated, Odeon session, by another artist altogether, was accidentally mislabelled on one side as one of Baker’s titles. That withdrawn label printed the names of Baker’s accompanists: Angelina Rivera [spelt Angelita, a form she also used] on violin and Spencer Williams, composer of two of the session titles, on piano.

Who was Angelina Rivera? D. Antoinette Handy, Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras (Scarecrow, Metuchen, 1981) mentions that she was a member of the Martin–Smith School Symphony Orchestra in New York. That would be c.1916–1918. (Handy mistakenly spells her name Riviera.) She was Puerto Rican, born Arecibo, 28 October 1990. Early in 1919 Will Marion Cook invited clarinetist Anthony Rivera (born Juncos, 1877 or 1878) and his two daughters, violinist Angelina and bass violinist Santos (born 1898 or 1899), to join the New York Syncopated Orchestra. A few months later the orchestra left for its first successful tour of Britain under the name the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. This was the orchestra that included Sidney Bechet (and George Smith among other changing violinists) and about which Ernst-Alexandre Ansermet wrote so perceptively. The orchestra and chorus included many women but one contemporary press photo only depicts twenty-eight men, including three violinists. In fact, it is known from printed concert programs that Angelina Rivera was not at first employed as a violinist but as a member of the chorus. Later programs list her, and photos show her, among the violinists. When the orchestra regrouped in 1921, under a new musical director, Rivera was also a member for a time and James Boucher was also one of the violinists. Other photos are now known, from 1919 and 1921, which do depict Angelina Rivera.

Rivera returned to the US sometime after the SSO’s 1919 and 1921 tours. Her presence in New York between the SSO in the UK and her 1926 Baker recordings in Paris is confirmed by Duke Ellington writing in Music Is My Mistress (1974)

We first knew him [banjoist Freddy Guy] when he was leader of a small band that played in a joint on 135th Street owned by Earl Dancer. [Thought at first to be the Oriental in Harlem but see Billboard fol.] He had Fats Waller in the band and a beautiful chick named Angelina Rivera, who was a fine violinist.

In 2007 Mark Miller found the following report from J. A. Jackson, “Here and There Among the Folks” in Billboard (23 June 1923):

Earl Dancer, onetime member of the team of Dancer and Green, is now operating the Golden Gate Club, performers’ rendevous, on West 135 Street, New York. Freckles and his jazz band provide the music, with Angelito Riviera [sic], violinist, as soloist. Russell Lee is doing the singing.

Ada Bricktop Smith, who helped Ellington secure his first break in New York, writes in Bricktop (1983) of an occasion at her Paris club that can be dated c.1926–1927:

Jascha Heifetz would often borrow a violin from one of the musicians and play. I’ll never forget the night he was in the club and I had a new girl violinist named Angelina. I liked changing the acts around. I hired Angelina because she played the violin very well and it was something a little bit different. She wasn’t exactly right for Bricktop’s, and I made it my business to introduce her myself. That night she couldn’t help noticing that there was a very distinguished gentleman at a front table who applauded longer and more loudly than anyone else when she played. She finally signaled me to meet her in the ladies room. “Who is that man?” she wanted to know. “Jascha Heifetz,” I answered. I watched Angelina faint dead away.

In 1927, Bricktop organized a band for an engagement in Berlin that was cancelled at the last minute. However, researcher Hans Pehl has discovered that the Berliner Herald (17–22 July 1927) named the scheduled musicians. Among them were Angelina Rivera and drummer Johnny Dunbar. This has lead to speculation that an autumn 1927 Copenhagen photo of the Jackson Rhythm Kings, including Johnny Dunbar, and “Mrs Dunbar” with violin, may have depicted Angelina Rivera, now either married to Dunbar or traveling under his name. But this is no longer credible because photos of the SSO now known to depict Angelina Rivera do not show the likeness of Mrs Dunbar. Whether Mrs Dunbar was in fact a violinist or was simply posing with a violin for the photo has yet to be established.

The four Joséphine Baker titles on which Rivera can be heard are: “I Love My Baby”, “I[’ve] Found a New Baby”, “Skeedle Um” and “Always”. They are available on CD Document DOCD 5652 Joséphine Baker, 1926–1927. Spencer Williams, the pianist on the session, who wrote most of the material for Baker’s shows of the period, is the composer of “Skeedle Um” and co-composer, with words by Jack Palmer, of “I[’ve] Found a New Baby”.

Was Angelina Rivera not only the first woman violinist, black or white, to record hot improvisations, but also the first black woman violinist in any genre on record? Probably, although it would be rash to state this categorically; there remain 1920s recordings that include as yet unidentified violinists.

Angelina Rivera 2010 Update

Thanks to further research by Howard Rye, and Konrad Nowakowski, into the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, considerably more is now known about Angelina Rivera. She married pianist Pierre De Caillaux [Lionel Jones], born Ohio, 1897, in London in 1919. Their daughter Dolores was born in 1920. She returned to USA in 1927. Returned again to Europe and back again to USA in 1930, by which time she had reverted to her birth name. She attended a breakfast party for Duke Ellington at Smalls, New York, May 1930. More photos of her are known and she appears in extant 1921 film footage of SSO members in Dublin. As yet nothing more is known about her movements after 1930. For much more information consult the two issues, devoted entirely to the SSO, guest edited by Howard Rye, of Black Music Research Journal, vol. 29, no. 2; vol. 30, no. 1 (University of Illinois, Fall 2009; Spring 2010).

Angelina Rivera 2012 Update

We now know what happened to Angelina Rivera after 1930, courtesy her granddaughter Christina Hall, and details will be posted here shortly



MAE BRADY was a noted Chicago violinist–orchestra leader who gave virtuoso violinist Eddie South early professional employment, probably including at the De Luxe Gardens Dancing Parlor in 1921. Brady later toured as a solo. She was not necessarily a hot improviser. She is not known to have recorded.

MAUD JONES was violinist in the orchestra of pianist Fred Tunstall, including trombonist Herb Fleming, accompanying blues singer Lucille Hegamin at Shuffle Inn, New York in 1921. She was not necessarily a hot improviser. She is not known to have recorded.

VALAIDA SNOW, best known as a virtuoso jazz trumpet player, vocalist and entertainer, first appeared on stage also as a violinist from the 1910s. She early worked with Earl Hines. She is not known to have recorded on violin.

KATHRYN PERRY was a vocalist and violinist who followed Snow in the Earl Hines orchestra and became Hines common-law wife. She is not known to have recorded on violin.

BETTY COMPSON was a noted movie actress. She was also a violinist known as “The Vagabond of the Violin”. While at high school in Salt Lake City, Compson played violin in the Mission Theatre orchestra accompanying silent movies and vaudeville acts. She also toured as a solo violinist. She acted in countless American and British silent movies and talkies. In Street Girl (1929) Compson plays Frederika Freddie Joyzelle, a violinist in a jazz quartet/quintet. Unfortunately the few hot breaks and the featured ballad repeated throughout are not played by Compson on the soundtrack but dubbed by Russ Columbo who also appears on screen as the trombonist with Gus Arnheim and His Ambassadors. A male violinist is also on screen in the band but finger work (or lack of it) suggests that he does not play and that all soundtrack violin is Columbo. The film was remade with different casts as That Girl from Paris (1937) and Four Jacks and a Jill (1941) in both of which the character is presented as a vocalist not a violinist. Also in 1929 Mildred Bailey dubbed Compson’s voice in The Czar of Broadway. Compson is not known to have recorded on violin.

SOPHIA RUBINOFF, also known as The Sepia Rubinoff, was a violinist resident at the Silver Dollar, New York in 1934. She was not necessarily a hot improviser. She is not known to have recorded.

AUDREY HALL [PETROFF] played violin and reeds. She studied in Illinois and Chicago. She is interviewed and her career profiled in depth in Sally Placksin, American Women in Jazz, 1900 to the Present (New York, 1982). She recorded on reeds with Ina Ray Hutton in 1934. Hall broadcast on violin in a duet with an unidentified guitarist as “The Tabasco Twins” in a Venuti–Lang vein on LA Station KMTR, c.1933. No airchecks or transcriptions are known. She was invited by Joe Venuti to tour Europe with him as lead reed player but had already committed herself to the Hutton band and had to decline. Hall is not known to have recorded on violin.

AUDREY CALL [MARCELLI] began her musical education at the age of three and appeared as a prodigy from her eighth year into her early teens. She gained national acclaim in 1926 after winning two major violin competitions. The following year she went to the Paris Conservatoire. She married orchestra leader Ulderico Rico Marcelli in 1937– see Charles Stumpf and Tom Price, Heavenly Days! The Story of Fibber McGee and Molly (Waynesville, NC, 1987). Call is heard as a soloist on 1935–1936 Chicago transcriptions and airchecks of The House by the Side of the Road and Fibber McGee and Molly when Marcelli led the programs’ house orchestras. She plays popular tunes of the day, including “When a Gypsy Makes His Violin Cry” and “Solitude”, novelty compositions of her own devising, and occasional hot Venuti-esque offerings, though almost certainly from arrangements, rather than improvised. Call made one commercial light classical recording, accompanied by Maurice Krumbein on piano, New York, 9 April 1937, released on 78 Master MA129: (3) Canterbury Tales: “No. 1. To A Lady From Baltimore”; “No.2. The Bishop Checkmates”; “No. 3: The Duke Takes A Train”. The latter is not a reference to Duke Ellington, though it has been suggested that Strayhorn may have been inspired in his title by Call. During the 1930s she published a number of novelty violin and piano duets with Carl Fischer. Her other compositions include “I Just Telephone Upstairs” (1952) from the radio program Halls of Ivy. “Boomer the Bass Drum” is a children’s story record written by Call featuring Two Ton Baker, The Merry Music Maker released on Mercury Miniature Playhouse. Her Gagliano violin is now owned and played by Geoffry Wharton, leader of Cologne Philharmonic.

EVELYN KAY [KLEIN] was featured soloist as “Evelyn and Her Magic Violin” with Phil Spitalny’s Hour of Charm broadcasting and recording all-girl orchestra 1934–1948. They married in 1946. The history of Spitalny’s orchestra and predatory nature is documented in Sherrie Tucker, Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s (Duke University Press, 2000).

LOMA COOPER was a light concert violinist. In Down Beat (August 1938) she endorsed, together with Stuff Smith and Evelyn Kay, the National Dobro Vio-Lectric—or Vio-Electric as it is called in a 1939 Smith Down Beat endorsement. Cooper ran an instrument repair shop in Chicago, home of National Dobro, and kept guard dogs which she named Fritz Kreisler and Stuff Smith. Cooper is almost certainly the female representative for National whom Smith recounted as having introduced him to the instrument at the Onyx in New York. Cooper is not known to have recorded.

HARRIETT WILSON and Her Singing Strings shared the bill with Stuff Smith and His Famous Door Five, Benny Goodman Quartet and Orchestra, and others, at Hollywood’s Second Swing Concert at the Palomar Ballroom, 1 August 1937. A profile by Mauric Brian of The Singing Strings appeared with a photograph in the British journal Rhythm (April 1939), reprinted in Fable Bulletin: Violin Improvisation Studies (1998), suggesting that they were fully capable of swinging with Venuti-like abandon. Shortly after Brian wrote his article, Harriett Wilson was involved in a car accident and hospitalized with a fractured skull at Good Samaritan Hospital, Hollywood. During the period of her recovery (she died in 2001) the Singing Strings continued to work and record transcriptions without her name in the headline. The six piece ensemble comprised Harriett Wilson, Josephine Harvey, Evelyn Hirsh (violins), Catherine Ames (cello), Virginia Gregg (bass), Leone Turnbow (piano). They broadcast over Hollywood’s Mutual–DonLee Station but, pace Brian’s written account, they are awfully sedate as house band on an extant Sears, Roebuck LA commercial; and hardly less so on scarce 78 MacGregor transcriptions of popular and light classical numbers. It seems that their true swing–time went unrecorded.

ANGEL CREASY worked as a violinist and vocalist with her group Three Little Words in New York clubs in the early 1940s. In 1943 she was first violinist in the all-women string section with the Earl Hines Orchestra. This Hines orchestra was not recorded but a photo was published in Stanley Dance, The World of Earl Hines (New York, 1977). Other photos appeared in contemporary issues of New York Amsterdam News and Pittsburgh Courier but available copies are too poor to reproduce. Strings included Lavilla Tullis [or Tullos] (harp), Angel Creasy, Helen Way (violins), Sylvia Medford and/or Lolita Valdez (violin and/or viola), Arlene [or Ardine] Illidge [or Loving] (cello), Roxanna Lucus (guitar), Lucille Dixon (bass). Hines: “The outstanding player among those girls was Angel Creasy, a violinist. We featured her quite a bit. The harpist was very good. So was the cellist, who married the band manager.” Creasy is not known to have recorded.

GINGER SMOCK was a protegée of Stuff Smith and one of the first violinists to record virtual bebop, with Vivien Garry in an all-women group for RCA Victor in September 1946. (Joe Kennedy Jr recorded what he called light bop six months earlier.) Smock recorded commercially only sporadically thereafter, including, during the 1950s, in a hard-hitting rhythm ’n’ blues style under the nominal leadership of Cecil Count Carter for Federal and on an unreleased title with The Jackson Brothers for RCA Victor. She appeared anonymously on a brilliant rockabilly side for Ebb. Her private demo recordings range through a multitude of genres. Smock was probably the first black woman to host her own television show as an orchestra leader, with Clora Bryant on trumpet, although there were a few earlier solo artists. During the 1960s–1970s she was concertmaster for Las Vegas hotel orchestras backing such artists as Sammy Davis Jr. She turns up in the string section on a Shuggie Otis album. A very low-fi private party tape is extant on which she plays a rare violin trio with Stuff Smith and Johnny Creach. Various issues of Fable Bulletin: Violin Improvisation Studies feature material on her. A CD Strange Blues gathering most of her commercially released and unreleased demo recordings from 1946–1958 was released by AB Fable in 2005.

These notes consolidate, revise and summarize AB’s notes on Angelina Rivera in Strings 93 (April 2001) and Strings 116 (February 2004), and on her and others in various issues of Fable Bulletin: Violin Improvisation Studies updated