Thelma Coombs was woman pioneer in early jazz in Chicago from about 1926 to 1930. From an early age she seems to have shown musical talent, enough to become first bass in the Chicago Women's Symphony Orchestra at age 18. Around this time, the string bass was finding its place in a big jazz band setting, and Thelma took advantage of this by finding work in various cafe and theater orchestras in Chicago, something very unusual for a young woman to do in those days. While playing in one such cafe, Vanity Fair, she met jazz legend Eddie Condon, and began a ten month dating relationship with Condon from the late summer of 1926 until the spring of 1927.
Condon remembered Thelma (in his book WE CALLED IT MUSIC) as a beautiful young woman who was able to take care of herself. Sometimes they would visit cabarets in some rather exotic settings on the South Side, up until seven in the morning, and Thelma would always find her own way home any time she got tired or bored. He also referred to her as a "musician", which, in his own understated way, was high praise for her work as a bassist.
Condon relates that the relationship ended when in the spring of 1927, Music Corporation of America, who owned Columbia Recording Company, hired Thelma, gave her the professional name "Terry", gathered together a band of musicians for her (including a very young Gene Krupa, later to become internationally known as drummer for Benny Goodman and as a bandleader in his own right), and sent her on tour throughout the country (the band's name was "Thelma Terry and her Playboys").
How Thelma caught the attention of MCA is not fully known, but in April, 1927, she evidently became enough of a main attraction while playing bass at the Piccadelly Theater in Chicago that a reporter for Vanity Fair took notice and mentioned "a good-looking girl playing the bass viol" stomping to the rhythm of the music to the detraction of the rest of the orchestra and the movie that happened to be playing. The next week, the Al Short-Ted Leary Orchestra featured in Variety a full-page ad complete with photograph of the entire orchestra (including a hard-to-make-out figure of Thelma behind the stringed bass). Thelma, however, was not mentioned or given credit for providing the band with national recognition.
But MCA evidently noticed her, obviously sensing a possible star attraction in the making. Thelma was billed as "The Female Paul Whiteman" (Paul Whiteman was the greatest bandleader of the day, but the epithet might indicate that Thelma had received classical training, as Whiteman had) and "The Beautiful Blonde Siren of Syncopation."
Thelma's band included some of the great names of Chicago jazz--Gene Krupa (already mentioned) and Bud Jacobson, for example. She made four recordings in Chicago in March, 1928, and two others in New York (with entirely different personnel, including the great pianist Bob Zurke) in September of that year. For years, record collectors guessed as to who was on these recordings, but the pianist on the Chicago recordings, Bill Otto ( still living, as of 1994, uncle of John Otto, a contemporary Chicago jazz musician) has identified the musicians for us.
Bill Otto remembers Thelma as a very attractive ("even voluptuous") young woman who was trying to lead a band of young men who were constantly trying to "hit" on her. Difficult professional relationships with the members of her all male band might explain the apparent turnover of personnel. (See liner notes by Frank Powers to IAJRC CD "THE OBSCURE AND NEGLECTED CHICAGOANS. With an injection of humor, Powers intentionally misnames Thelma's band as "Thelma Terry and Her Boyfriends.")
Whatever the fate of Thelma's touring band, she seems to have settled in Chicago at a place called "The Golden Pumpkin" in 1929. With the Great Depression hitting the music industry, there were fewer places to play real jazz. People had no money for records, and preferred to stay home to listen to the radio for free. Male jazz musicians could find work in radio,or they could play for weddings and parties in funny costumes, but this meant playing music they did not like. Thelma's options, it seems, would have been far more limited, given the attitudes towards women of the time. But she continued to lead her band, and seems to have shown a great deal of generosity to some musicians who could not find work that they liked--Bud Jacobson and Bud Freeman (later to become a world famous tenor saxophonist), for example. There were, more often than not, more musicians sitting in on Thelma's band than paying customers at the Golden Pumpkin (according to Richard Sudhalter, LOST CHORDS (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 217).
Some time in those early years of the Depression, Thelma just disappeared from the music scene (perhaps 1930 or 1931). Nobody knows what happened to her, but most likely she simply left music, probably for financial reasons and perhaps because she might have been tired of the legions of mashers her public life brought her, to settle down, get married and have a family. In those days, women did not have careers in our sense of the word, and only worked until they got married.
At this date, Thelma's direct musical impact on the popular music and jazz of the time seems to have been small. During the time when she was professionally active and ever since, it seems that her stature as a musician has been disputed--from Bill Otto, who actually played in her band, and who did not consider her to be an exceptional bass player, and who claims that her reputation was largely due to her sex appeal, to Brian Rust, great British discographer, who makes her equal to any of the male bass players of the time.
Thelma's few recordings do survive, however, and indicate that Thelma Terry was a fine bass player and bandleader and that Brian Rust's estimation of her cannot be far wrong. They attest to the brief, but remarkable career of an exceptionally talented young woman trying to succeed against cultural and financial odds, and even against her own considerable physical beauty.
As such, Thelma Coombs Terry's story is one that deserves to be told. It is our hope that someone seeing her picture and reading this will recognize her as their grandmother or aunt, and contact the Combs-Coombs listserv with further information.