Helen Jones Woods, a founding member of the first integrated, all-women swing orchestra, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, died of COVID-19 at the age of 96 on July 25.
Woods was the daughter of Dr. Laurence Clifton Jones, founder of the historic Piney Woods boarding school in Mississippi and the mother of media mogul, Cathy Hughes, who founded Urban One, the largest African-American-owned and operated broadcast company in the nation.
Ms. Woods was born in the fall of 1923 in Meridian, Misssissippi. Her adopted father, Dr. Laurence Clifton Jones, was the founder of the Piney Woods Country Life School, a historic Mississippi-based African- American boarding school, which is still in existence.
She grew up on the school campus and began playing music at the age of 6. Dr. Jones wanted her to learn to play the violin, but, instead, she opted for the trombone because she liked the way the struts slid up and down.
Dr. Jones raised funds for the school by touring student groups such as The Cotton Blossom Singers. One evening when he heard Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra play on the 1930s CBS radio broadcast “Hour of Charm,” he had a new fundraising idea.
“He said, `I’ve got a bunch of women here [at the school], why don’t I start a girl band?’” Woods remembered during a forum discussion at Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution in 2011.
In 1937, Dr. Jones formed the Swinging Rays of Rhythm with a pre-teen Woods and other Piney Woods students ranging in age from 13-19.
The all-girl band toured extensively to raise revenue for the school. Eventually, the band relocated to Arlington, Virginia, where its manager Daniel Gary, changed its name to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm to reflect the ethnic composition of the group, which featured not only African Americans but also Asian, Mexican, Native American and European American women.
The ensemble became huge during World War II. For a time, Jesse Stone, who would eventually write the Rock N Roll classic, “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” was their arranger and brought polish to their sound.
They had their own tour bus and set a Howard Theater box office record when they attracted more than 35,000 patrons for a week of shows there in 1941.
They did a USO tour for the troops and performed at prestigious venues ranging from the Apollo Theater in Harlem to Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. They shared stages with or backed acts such as Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Louis Armstrong and Count Basie were fans.
In 1944, they were cited as America’s Top All-Female Orchestra by DownBeat Magazine. Although, they mostly performed hit songs of the day, they also recorded their own songs such as the popular “Jump Children” in 1945.
By 1949, the group had folded and Woods moved on with her life.
“When I found out other women could play trombone better than me, I retired myself,” she cracked at the Smithsonian forum.
She married William Alfred Woods and raised a family in Omaha, where she earned a nursing degree and a master’s in social work. She worked at the Douglas County Hospital there for more than 30 years.
Because of her history with The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Woods was inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame in 2007.
For the last few years, Woods has lived in Sarasota, Florida.
She is survived by her four children, Catherine Liggins Hughes, Jacquelyn Marie Woods, William Alfred Woods and Dr. Robert Anthony Woods.
One of Woods’ favorite sayings was, “Never give a person credit for what they have done when cash would be more appropriate.”
In keeping with her wishes, the family requests that the public make financial donations to The Helen Jones Woods Fund at The Piney Woods School to help insure and guarantee a solid education for the next generation.
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