100 years after her birth, violinist Ginger Smock is still due wider recognition for her contributions to the history of jazz violin
By Laura Risk | From the November-December 2020 issue of Strings magazine
I first heard Emma “Ginger” Smock a decade ago, on a 1946 recording by the Vivien Garry Quartet called “A Woman’s Place Is in the Groove.” Smock was in the groove, all right, delivering a bluesy, swinging violin solo with driving ostinatos and horn-like phrasing. Who was this woman, I wanted to know, staking her claim in the all-male pantheon of early- and mid-century jazz violinists like Joe Venuti, Eddie South, Stuff Smith, Stéphane Grappelli?
Ginger Smock (1920–95)
One of the first women to record “hot” jazz improvisations on the violin, and one of the first female African American bandleaders on television, her horn-like solos and dramatic stage presence electrified audiences across the country. Her story may be punctuated with closed doors but is defined by those she pushed open and walked right through.
I bought Smock’s only commercially available recording, the posthumous Strange Blues, and began reading up on Los Angeles’ vibrant Central Avenue, the close-knit African American community where she was raised by her aunt and uncle. I dug through historical Black newspapers like the Los Angeles Sentinel and the California Eagle looking for gig announcements.
And then, in early 2013, I received an email from a member of her extended family, Lydia Bennett, who had recently inherited Ginger Smock’s violin and was looking for a good home for it.
We tend to associate jazz with certain U.S. cities: New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Kansas City. But Los Angeles was a hotbed, too. Jelly Roll Morton played on Central Avenue in 1917. Kid Ory recorded his ground-breaking “Creole Trombone” in Los Angeles in 1921. Louis Armstrong moved to town in 1930 to jumpstart his film career. Ginger Smock’s contemporaries on Central Avenue included saxophonists Irma Young, Dexter Gordon, and Vi Reed; trumpeters Ernie Royal and Clora Bryant; flautist Buddy Collette; trombonist Melba Liston; and bassists Red Callender and Charles Mingus. And the list goes on.
At a time when racial discrimination restricted many career paths, Central Avenue families placed a high priority on music lessons as a “means towards advancement in the future,” writes historian Bette Cox in the excellent Central Avenue—Its Rise and Fall (1890–c. 1955). Smock studied classical violin privately under Bessie Dones and was something of a child prodigy, performing at the Hollywood Bowl to a standing ovation at age ten. At Jefferson High School, she joined the orchestra and the marching band (as drum majorette) under celebrated educator Sam Browne. She played with two youth ensembles, the All-City Symphony and the Junior Philharmonic, and went on to study at the Zoellner Conservatory of Music.
Indeed, as violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins notes, Smock’s early life had all the hallmarks of a pre-professional classical-music career. In the early 1940s, however, African Americans were excluded from professional orchestras in the United States. Instead, Smock took a job at a lithography shop and performed at church and community functions. (She would later join the Southeast Symphony, a primarily African American orchestra.)
As a child, Smock was a fan of big bands and, in her words, liked to “sit by the phonograph and improvise” to Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Jimmie Lunceford. She studied the recordings of jazz violinists Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, and Eddie South, and listened to Stéphane Grappelli and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France on the radio. Later encounters with all of these violinists were highlights of her career, and she remembered Smith and Venuti each claiming her as his “kid”: “I played like both of them,” she said.
When I asked jazz violin historian Anthony Barnett, who compiled Strange Blues, how he’d heard of Smock, he recalled a conversation with Stuff Smith in 1965. “I said, ‘Are there any other violinists who sound like you, who have a horn-like approach?’ And he said, ‘Yes, there is one. Ginger Smock.’”
In 1943, Smock was called to substitute for Smith at a local club. “That’s when I decided that if I couldn’t be a Heifetz, I’d settle for being a good jazz violinist,” she later told DownBeat. That same year, she launched two all-woman bands, the Sepia Tones and the Three (later Four) V’s. It was World War II and women were claiming space in the male-dominated music industry, Rosie the Riveter–style. Still, promoters and audiences expected female instrumentalists to perform a more varied and less challenging repertoire; the Sepia Tones, for instance, played pieces like “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Holiday for Strings.”
Smock didn’t leave many commercial recordings—more on that later—but if you’d like to hear her in full force, there’s no better place to start than her composition “Strange Blues” (1953), the CD’s title track. Her playing is indeed similar to Stuff Smith’s—wide vibrato, conspicuous slides, horn-like phrase structures—but she also has the sweetness of tone and technical
virtuosity of Stéphane Grappelli or Eddie South. Like all great players, she borrowed from others and made it her own. She also loved special effects: listen for her brazen left-hand pizzicato and almost-over-the-top use of trills and glissandi.
Smock’s star continued to rise through the 1940s. With Ginger and Her Magic Notes, she played the opulent Cocoanut Grove in Santa Monica. She held down long stints at the Waikiki Inn, where she and her band dressed “Hawaiian”—including grass skirts and leis. According to the Cleveland Call and Post, she “scored a smash success” as the “First Lady of the Violin” at the Last Word, and San Francisco clubs began “bidding against each other for her services.” She recorded on Leonard Feather’s Girls in Jazz album and hosted a radio show, Melody Parade.
In 1951, she made the leap to television as bandleader for a short-lived CBS production, The Chicks and the Fiddle. According to DownBeat, the all-woman band were the first “sepia swingsters to break into west coast TV.” That fall, producer Klaus Lansberg tapped Smock for the local variety show Dixie Showboat and she was later an occasional guest on Spade Cooley’s Hoffman Hayride.
By all accounts, Smock was a stunning performer. She seems to have had a pragmatic understanding that, as a young woman, both her artistry and her body were on display, and she played the part. A “heart throb violinist-entertainer who runs the gamut from Bach to Boogie,” thrilled the Pittsburgh Courier.
In 2011, I discovered the only known video of Smock from her Los Angeles years: an episode of Dixie Showboat preserved at the UCLA Film and Television Archives. Smock first appears sitting meekly among the showboat’s “passengers” and tells the “captain” that she is only “trying to be” a musician. When she launches into “What Is This Thing Called Love,” however, she seizes the stage. She plays the melody once with impeccable classical technique, adding double-stops and virtuosic runs, and then breaks into a high-energy swing solo, shifting her hips from side to side and leaning back for the high notes. The audience cheers as she tosses off an extended run of ascending tremolo scales and ends with several dramatic pizzicato. No wonder Jet called her a “fireball in her act.”
From 1953–55, Smock toured nationally with R&B group Steve Gibson and the Red Caps. “She is Stuff Smith and his hawkish fiddling and Yehudi Menuhin wrapped into one mold,” declared the Philadelphia Tribune, after a four-week run in that city. (She had also toured the west coast with the Jackson Brothers Orchestra in 1953.)
Returning to Los Angeles, Smock headlined at local clubs—including a billing as “The Bronze Gypsy and her Violin”—worked as MC and bandleader for the television show Rhythm Review (1958–59), and, in the early ’60s, became the first woman musical director for the S.S. Catalina, a summertime cruise ship. She released her only full-length album with that band, an LP of “island music” titled On the S.S. Catalina with the Shipmates and Ginger.
She also made her only known film appearance in these years, as an Egyptian court musician—alongside trombonist Melba Liston—in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments.
Smock was a fixture at Central Avenue benefits and church events. This included annual 5:00 am Easter Sunday services, usually on the heels of a late-night club gig. “To me, that’s a great portion of my life, just playing for church,” she later reflected. “It’s my way of saying, ‘Thank you, God, for giving me a gift.’” In 1968, the People’s Independent Church—in which she had grown up—awarded her a certificate in recognition of 30-plus years of musical service.
In the 1960s, Smock took on more orchestral work. With the George Rhodes Orchestra—often as concertmaster—she backed Sammy Davis, Jr., Johnny Mathis, and other big names of the day. Smock and her husband, Bob Shipp, moved to Las Vegas in 1971 and she spent her last decades playing in hotel orchestras: the Sands, the Flamingo, Caesars Palace, and the Tropicana, where she was concertmaster. A 1972 column in the Los Angeles Sentinel calls her appointment as a full member of the Antonio Morelli Orchestra “a first,” suggesting that Smock may have broken the color barrier in these orchestras.
“I got tired of so many ‘doors’ being closed in my face,” Smock wrote to Canadian jazz-violin collector John Reeves in 1974, “so now I’m making myself content to be an orchestral musician.” For decades, she had hoped for a recording deal that never came to be. Here is how she explained it to Reeves:
“[In 1953] an executive of RCA Victor came to San Francisco, liked my playing so well he rented a studio, made the tape, took it back to Hollywood to RCA. He played it for the rest of the execs there, they listened, said it was superb . . . and asked him who was the artist. He said it was a girl from L.A. and they told him I had no name and they could get Joe Venuti instead.”
She told the same story to jazz historian Sherrie Tucker 20 years later, in almost the same words.
John Reeves had cold-called Smock in 1973, looking for her recordings, and the two became fast friends. As his son Dean wrote to me, “John felt passionately that Ginger should have an equal opportunity to be recorded and heard just as so many of the great jazz violinists had been.” John Reeves sent promo materials and demo tapes to recording companies and festival directors in hope of a breakthrough, but nothing panned out. Instead, his family has preserved what Dean calls “a trove of gems”— letters, press clippings, photos, and over 50 cassette tapes and reel-to-reels—documenting “the lifelong challenges Ginger Smock faced in achieving recognition.”
The materials in that collection are now housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)—and that brings me to Smock’s violin. Lydia Bennett and I stayed in touch. I helped her get a professional evaluation of the instrument as she continued unearthing family treasures: Smock’s record collection; an autographed Sammy Davis, Jr., poster; and several handwritten compositions, including “When a Gypsy Really Plays the Blues” and “Under a Copper Moon” (Smock identified as mixed-race: African American, Native American, and Irish American). We reached out to the Reeves family and arranged for a joint donation to the NMAAHC, and were thrilled when Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts, welcomed the Ginger Smock collection with open arms.
As Kelly-Hall Tompkins notes, “Ginger Smock is but one example of how history can absorb or overlook the achievements of African Americans and women. . . . She should factor into the conversation when we talk about musical history in the United States: jazz history and classical history.” Ginger Smock may have been born a century ago, but the next chapter for this virtuosic, barrier-breaking performer is still to be written.
Ginger Smock’s Violin
Ginger Smock played a late 19th-century Czech violin that she named “Baby.” The label reads “Ferdinandus Aug. Homolka Fecit Prague 1849.” A professional evaluation determined that the instrument was not made by Homolka, a well-known Czech maker, but was an excellent copy. The violin has several dramatic but well-repaired cracks. There is a circular indentation under the corner of the fingerboard on the E-string side, where Smock likely anchored her thumb for pizzicato.
Smock’s violin is now housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. You can read more about Smock and her violin on the Smithsonian’s website, music.si.edu.
Ginger Smock’s Recordings
Jazz-violin historian Anthony Barnett was in contact with both Ginger Smock and Canadian jazz-violin collector John Reeves in the last years of Smock’s life. With Smock’s blessing, he compiled most of her early recordings on the CD Strange Blues: Ginger Smock, The Lovely Lady with the Violin, Los Angeles Studio & Demo Recordings 1946–1958 (AB Fable ABCD1-010, 2005).
Copies of the 1961 LP On the S.S. Catalina with the Shipmates and Ginger (Venise 7015) can be found occasionally on eBay.
One of Smock’s first recording sessions was with the Vivien Garry Quartet for the Girls in Jazz album produced by jazz critic Leonard Feather. She played an early electric violin, the Beauchamp Rickenbacker Electro. These tracks are available on Strange Blues and on various YouTube channels.
John Reeves amassed a large collection of informal recordings of Smock in the 1970s and ‘80s. These include live shows, practice and listening sessions, and radio interviews. Reeves shared copies of these recordings with Anthony Barnett, who published a comprehensive discography for Ginger Smock in the print newsletter Fable Bulletin Violin Improvisation Studies No. 3 (1994), with subsequent updates (Nos. 5, 10, 11, and online at abar.net). These recordings are now housed at the NMAAHC but are not commercially available.
Learn more about Central Avenue through the Central Avenue Sounds Oral History Project and the Black Music and Musicians in Los Angeles Oral History Collection, both at UCLA.
Watch an interview with Ginger Smock by Bette Cox below.
Laura Risk is an assistant professor of music and culture in the department of arts, culture, and media at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She performs and teaches Scottish and Québécois fiddling.