Thelma Terry, jazz bandleader of the ’20s

Jazz bassist & bandleader Thelma Terry in 1927 (Photo Credit: AMB)

Flappers dancing to jazz form a stock mental image of the Roaring ’20s, but we seldom envision women as the actual musicians or bandleaders. A few clubs fielded all-female jazz combos as a marketing gimmick, but none of them achieved real distinction. Thelma Terry, however, earned critical acclaim as a bassist and experienced some commercial success leading her own band of professional male musicians. Her few surviving recordings confirm her virtuosity as a instrumentalist, her skill as bandleader and the tragedy of her premature disappearance from the music industry.

Born in Bangor, Michigan in 1901, Terry barely knew her father, for her parents divorced soon after she was born. Her mother worked as a domestic servant for a wealthy family in Chicago. These kindly employers gave her daughter the chance to take music lessons and finish high school — both unusual opportunities for a girl of any social class in the 1910s.

Terry chose the double bass and claimed first chair in the Chicago Women’s Symphony Orchestra at the age of 18. She soon switched to jazz — the hottest musical genre at the time — as it paid better and offered greater scope for artistic expression.

Aside from some singers, there were few female jazz musicians in the ’20s, but Terry’s extraordinary chops commanded instant respect. At a time when most string bassists merely kept time in the background, Terry distinguished herself not just with technical virtuosity, but also with her creativity, a melodic and rhythmic adventurism that supercharged the swing in spirited conversation with the rest of the band.

There was absolutely nothing girly about Terry’s musical style. Her muscular bass lines expressed the spunky spirit of the flapper movement: challenging gender norms by claiming traditionally male privileges like voting, driving, dancing, drinking, smoking, eschewing chaperones, cutting their hair short and dressing boyishly and provocatively.

First, Terry paid her dues and won acclaim as a sideman, playing with the boys in Chicago nightclubs and speakeasies. Then, she briefly fronted an all-female band, called Thelma Combes and Her Volcanic Orchestra.

Terry as a member of Colosimo’s Orchestra in the mid-’20s (Photo Credit: Red Hot Jazz)

Finally, she formed Thelma Terry and Her Playboys, recruiting future jazz greats Gene Krupa, Bud Freeman and Eddie Condon. MCA, their label, billed her as “the beautiful blonde siren of syncopation.” Terry’s band cut several singles and were slated to tour Europe in 1929 when she suddenly quit and married Willie Haar, a wealthy bootlegger from Georgia.

Alas, the bass-playing flapper from Chicago did not find lasting happiness with her booze-running beau from the Deep South. Ours is a crazy, mixed-up world.

A divorced single mom by 1936, Terry returned to the Midwest and tried to break back into show business, but found those doors now closed to her. Accordingly, she pawned her instrument, taught knitting to make ends meet and lived the rest of her life in obscurity, unknown to all but a few audiophiles who treasured the rare discs of the “Jazz Princess” who “plucked a punchy bass fiddle.” She died in 1966.

Mama’s Gone, Goodbye” is perhaps the best of her band’s six surviving recordings. Note how Terry lays down the law at the outset of the song and propels the swing throughout. Jazz bands played live with a full drum kit, but the fragile wax cylinder recording technology of the ’20s could not handle the blast of snare, tom or bass drums, so Krupa here is limited to hi-hat timekeeping and accents, plus a few brief bongo fills.

A publicity shot of the bandleader, c. 1928 (Photo Credit: Combes Families)

On “Lady of Havana,” Terry’s playing is again excellent. She and the band credibly evoke the piece’s intended Cuban feel while executing a tight arrangement that gives every musician a chance to shine. Here, Krupa rocks the castanets and the bongos.

The rest of Terry’s canon with the Playboys, in descending order of interest and quality, includes “How Low Can You Go,” “Starlight and Tulips,” “Dusky Stevedore” and “When Sweet Susie Goes Steppin’ By.” Most streaming services have her recordings.

In my humble but accurate opinion, “Mama’s Gone” and “Lady of Havana” belong in the musical library of every audiophile and every student of American women’s history. On the basis of those two tracks alone, I hereby nominate Terry as the best jazz bassist before the bebop era, though I invite others more learned in the lore of the genre to set me straight on that.

It is pleasant to imagine an alternate universe where Terry could have continued to work as a jazz musician and realize the considerable promise displayed on these recordings. At minimum, Krupa, upon achieving massive success, should have sought her out and rewarded her for giving him his start in the business.

If you enjoyed this article, then please hit the little heart down there to help others find it. I invite your comments. Thank you for reading.