Helvetia (Vet) Boswell aka VBoz
|Born: Birmingham, AL, May 20, 1911|
|Died: Peekskill, NY November 12, 1988|
|Hair Color: Black-Brown|
|Eye Color: Dark Brown|
|Marriage(s): John Paul Jones|
|Children: Vet Boswell Jones, August 22, 1936 – October 26, 2010|
The Boz who we’d most like to be caught with on a slow boat to China
Blessed with a remarkable ability to blend, VBoz had the high voice of the trio. She was classically trained on the violin by Professor Otto Finck and made her first public performance in the Passion Play Veronica’s Veil. With Martha and Connie on piano and cello, Vet would soon make the Boswell Sisters into a precocious trio of gifted musicians much admired by the citizens of the Crescent City.
But growing up in New Orleans, the sounds of early jazz were infused into her musical mind. In later life she told of listening to the songs coming from black churches and listening to records of the hot jazz groups. Like her sisters, VBoz was multi-instrumental, and the banjo became her vehicle for hot licks.
You hear VBoz on the famous first Victor recording making the “gargle” background with CBoz on Crynin’ Blues, and her high voice stands out on the chorus of Nights When I am Lonely. She is 13 years old.
The music really moved this Boswell – so much so that she had a tap and clog routine that she worked up and added to the act. So book the Boswell Sisters and get:
- Classical string trio
- Piano solos from MBoz
- Swing trio
- Harmony singing and whistling (yes, they whistled in three part harmony, too)
- Solos from CBoz
- Dancing from VBoz
Such a deal – and they’re pretty too!
VBoz was the acknowledged perfectionist of the group who tore CBoz and MBoz away from fun and frivolity to work on their numbers. And boy did it pay off. Although the baby sister, Vet was the one who kept things in line onstage, too. She stood behind Martha and Connie who were seated on the piano bench, bent over slightly so their voices would be about evenly distant from the microphone. But this positioning also gave the Sisters a physical connection as they sang: a visceral, tactile link that allowed them to sing, move, breath as a single unit. It also gave VBoz access to her two “silly” sisters and she was known to give their shoulders a hard squeeze when they got tickled or otherwise unruly.
Shy and reserved, VBoz never sought out solos and seldom had them. But she was as integral to the Boswell sound as MBoz or CBoz. The trio worked out all the vocal arrangements together, never wrote them down, just memorized them. Vet remembered the trio staying up late and working on their music, making suggestions and arguing their points until they agreed.
And we agree, too, it was great stuff.
An article from Melody Maker written on July 1, 1933 while the Sisters were in London provides a wonderful description of VBoz:
“Next came Vet – grave-eyed and quietly dignified. She seems more reserved than her sisters, though sometimes her reserve falls away like a cloak and she talks and laughs as animatedly as Martha – which is saying a lot…. Vet apparently is the domesticated one. She packs the trunks with uncanny skill, arranges the flowers with unerring artistic rights and so on…”
VBoz was notoriously shy and quiet, but behind the silent demeanor lived a razor sharp mind and a dry, acerbic wit. She didn’t say much, but when she did it was right on target. It was probably the best possible tact for the baby sister of two wildly outgoing and vocal personalities like Martha and Connie. When she got a word in edgewise it had to be good!
In her later years she flirted with the idea of making a professional comeback with Connie, but some have suggested the perfectionist in her would not be happy with anything less than what they had been in the 30s.
She collaborated with Stuart Ross and Mark Hampton in staging a review of the Boswell Sisters music in the 80s called Heebie Jeebies. This wasn’t the only Boswell revival she helped inspire. Her return trip to New Orleans, nearly 40 years after her family had left town, renewed interest in the Boswell legacy. During that trip she joined the Bozzie inspired Pfister Sisters onstage. She still remembered all the parts and as Yvette Voelker recalled “She didn’t have any problem correcting us!”
Family remained important to Vet and after her husband’s retirement she moved from Canada to New York to be nearer her sisters. She got to enjoy her grandchildren and great grandchildren before she passed away in 1988.