The Piney Woods School is profoundly saddened and deeply shaken by the loss of Helen Jones Woods, daughter of our founder, Laurence Clifton Jones, and mother of media legend Cathy Hughes, who launched Urban One, the largest African-American owned and operated broadcast company in the nation.
Helen Woods succumbed to the COVID-19 virus this past weekend. She was 96 years old.
Helen Jones Woods was a founding member of The Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-women jazz band. The band was founded by Dr. Laurence Jones in 1937 at The Piney Woods School and toured extensively throughout the United States to raise money for the school. The Sweethearts became professionals and played in theaters across the country, including the Apollo Theater and Howard Theater in Washington, DC where they set a box office record of 35,000 patrons in 1941. They also toured war-torn Europe with the USO, making a place for themselves in a world ruled by gender and racial prejudice. At one time, Helen was known as one of the top two trombonists in the country.
After her music career concluded, Helen returned to college earning a degree in Nursing and a Masters in Social Work. She stayed in the medical field for over 30 plus years at Douglas County Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska.
Woods was inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2011, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were honored in Washington, DC by the Smithsonian Institute, and Helen was there, regaling the audience with anecdotes from her colorful career. Recordings of her music can be located on YouTube and the NPR website under “America’s ‘Sweethearts’; An All Girls Band that Broke Racial Boundaries.” Legendary Bandleader Earl “Fatha” Hines gave the band the nickname “the first Freedom Riders.”
One of Helen Woods’ favorite sayings was “NEVER GIVE A PERSON CREDIT FOR WHAT THEY HAVE DONE WHEN CASH WOULD BE MORE APPROPRIATE.”