The Woman I Finally Knew
A musician's story of hope and determination. The musician was my mother.
We're all familiar with Rosie the Riveter, the 1940s icon for women who temporarily filled factory jobs while the men were at war. But little is said about women who built professional careers during these years — careers that gave voice to vibrant intellectual and creative talents and shaped identities. Journalist, writer, accountant, pilot and performer are just a few of the stories I've heard. Although often short-lived, their first careers influenced the rest of these women's lives.
Those stories are longing to be told — not as what-might-have-been tales but as the trailblazing achievements they truly were. This is the story of my mother, her love for music and her unwavering commitment to keep that love alive for more than 80 years.
My Mom, the Musician
I always knew my mother, Helen Irene Day Schuster, was a musician. Big band music filled our home. Conversations revolved around her music-related thoughts of the day. Helen's instruments were ever-present. And she practiced. Every. Day.
Music wasn't just her talent. It was her identity, her heart and soul.
Even so, my mother was a mystery; often sad and detached except when fully engaged in her music. I didn't understand who she truly was until memorabilia and 1940s photo albums discovered after she passed revealed a vibrant, independent woman I'd never known. Music wasn't just her talent. It was her identity, her heart and soul.
Helen was born in 1923 to a poor family in rural Indiana. She dreamt of playing in a band but her family had no means to acquire an instrument, until her domestic-worker mom rescued a clarinet from the trash. Two years later Helen's band director offered her the chance to play the school's saxophone. She fell in love.
In 1942, at age 19, Helen began an 11-year career with all-girl big bands. This was a dream come true. Nationwide tours of one-night stands offered glamour, fame, costumes, bright lights, a paycheck and the chance to see America. Plus, for the first time Helen had friends who matched her passion and identity — friends she'd remain in touch with for decades to come.
Helen thrived in this environment. By 1944, Helen was sought after as a lead alto and tenor sax player who doubled on clarinet, baritone and soprano sax, flute, piccolo, piano and in a pinch, drums. For the next decade Helen played in ballrooms, theaters and dance clubs in all but a few states.
The best gigs went to men. Women musicians who still performed full-time were suspect.
In 1951, with the big band era winding down (and all-girl bands no longer in vogue) Helen and three other women formed a "co-op" quartet, The Quadettes. All decisions were made together, from costumes and music to gigs and salary. As an all-girl group with no male manager, these women were trailblazers.
But societal pressures were strong. The best gigs went to men. Women musicians who still performed full-time were suspect. By early 1953, Helen had married and left the band — but she never left music.
The Struggle of Daily Life
Away from the world she knew and loved, life became a daily struggle. Helen was neither skilled nor interested in traditional housewife duties (sewing, cooking, decorating, entertaining). Nor was she suited for the acceptable female musician roles of piano teacher or church pageant director. Up to now Helen had spent her adult life as a sought-after jazz player accustomed to a fast, glamorous life. Small town life in the 1950s was not a good fit.
For seventeen years Helen continued to practice. Every. Day. She maintained her union membership and read every mailing from cover to cover as though it was news from a long lost relative. And she remained vigilant. I was never sure for what — but she was.
Up to now Helen had spent her adult life as a sought-after jazz player accustomed to a fast, glamorous life. Small town life in the 1950s was not a good fit.
In 1969 Helen finally got permission from her husband to join a local pick-up group that played in area parades. Helen was allowed to join if the group rehearsed in our living room with our family present. It was a far cry from the independence and professionalism of her big band years, but it was a foot in the door. Helen was never without a band again!
For the next twenty years Helen joined every big band, jazz band and small combo she could find – often as the only female performer. To maximize her options, she even pushed through overwhelming anxiety and learned to drive. Each new group meant new scrutiny and new restrictions but her determination and talent prevailed. Although she missed the camaraderie of her 40s female colleagues, Helen focused on the music and was grateful for every chance to perform.
A Second Musical Heyday
In 1989, now in her late 60s, Helen and her husband traveled to Florida to explore the "snowbird" life. As luck would have it, the Sun City Center big band had a rare opening for an alto sax player. This was an all-male group of retirees who, like Helen, had played professionally in big bands during the 1940s (before serving in the military and settling into traditional careers).
Helen was a rarity, as few professional female musicians from that era had maintained their chops, let alone continued to perform. Given her background, Helen was offered an audition — followed by immediate acceptance into the group.
She kept up her daily practice routine until she passed away at age 98, "to keep in shape for my next gig."
Thus began Helen's second musical heyday.
For the next thirty years Helen's life was full of music. Besides her full schedule of big band concerts and dances, Helen joined other bands and combos around the Tampa area and continued to perform with her Illinois groups in the summer. During her 70s and 80s, Helen played dozens of gigs a year, filling each day with some combination of personal practice, rehearsal and performance.
In her spare time, she attended concerts, participated in group master classes at a nearby college, and clipped and organized the frequent media coverage for these amazing groups. Helen was back.
Over the years, Helen quietly modeled a lifelong career in music, inspiring people of all ages to hold tight to their dreams. Although her performance schedule slowed down in her final years, Helen was a faithful member of the South Shore Concert Band until the end. And she kept up her daily practice routine until she passed away at age 98, "to keep in shape for my next gig."
When she passed, the band held their own memorial in her honor. Play on, Helen. Play on.