Ina Ray Hutton and women’s big bands through history

In the 1930s, Ina Ray Hutton, billed as the “Blonde Bombshell of Rhythm,” made her name as the leader of one of history’s first all-female big bands.

Born Odessa Cowan in Chicago in 1916, Ina Ray was the older half-sister of singer and actress June Hutton. With the help of Irving Mills, she changed her name in 1934 and formed an all-women orchestra known as the Melodears, which for a time included Toronto pianist Ruth Lowe.

Lowe would later go on to write I’ll Be Seeing You, which was a monster hit for Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers, and then was commissioned by Sinatra to write Put Your Dreams Away (for Another Day), which he used as his closing theme for many years.

The Melodears made few recordings but were featured in several movie shorts, which can be seen on YouTube.

In 1939, Hutton formed an all-male orchestra which also made few recordings, but was featured on many Coca-Cola Victory Parade broadcasts from army camps, naval barracks and military airfields. Naturally, Hutton’s statuesque figure and sultry gyrations out front of the band made her a hit with U.S. servicemen across the country.

Of course, she was also a pretty good singer and the band, with arrangements by George Paxton, could really swing. Hutton’s second orchestra reached its prime between 1942 and 1944, in the middle of the strike against the major record labels by the American Federation of Musicians, so we are fortunate to have these Victory Parade broadcasts.

This Sunday, March 8, is International Women’s Day. On this day, The Big Band Show with Glen Woodcock will devote its entire five hours to women in jazz — especially big band jazz — from 5 to 10 p.m.

Along with shining a spotlight on the trailblazing Ina Ray Hutton, we will also be paying tribute to other women’s bands including the International Sweethearts of Rhythm from the late 1930s and early 1940s, and more modern all-female jazz bands led by Kit McClure and Sherry Maracle.

Others sharing that spotlight will be Lorraine Desmarais and her jazz band from Montreal, Chelsea McBride’s Socialist Night School from Toronto, and instrumental soloists such as Dizzy Gillespie’s trombonist Melba Liston and the late tenor saxophonist Dr. Kira Payne from Toronto.

That’s Sunday, March 8, from 5 to 10 p.m. on JAZZ.FM91.