Born in 1908 in Loveland, Ohio, her father was an accomplished musician and teacher. She first learned to play on a cornet, and then picked up trombone, mellophone, baritone, tuba, and French horn, at a time where there was plenty of prejudice against women who played instruments not considered appropriate for their gender. Fern loved music and would let nothing stop her from playing it.
Fern’s first public performances were with her family’s orchestra, providing music for graduations, fairs, and other civic functions. The family moved to California in 1922 and Fern graduated from Manual Arts High School in 1925. She performed with a series of all-girl bands, and sometimes with her sister-in-law, Blanche, who played accordion, among other instruments: The Gibson Navigators (1926-27); Babe Egan and Her Hollywood Redheads (1927-30); Mary and Her Platinum Blondes (1931-32) and The Gypsy Wayfarers (1935-36); later she played in the Chicago Women’s Symphony (1941-48); and with Ada Leonard and Her All-Girl Orchestra 1949-1953. A review in the 1920s stated: “Fern is an exceedingly accomplished trombone player and a leader in the comedy moments.” She was also very beautiful. While with Babe Egan’s band, she toured Europe and appeared in the first German sound film, playing trombone.
While playing with Babe Egan’s band at the State Lake Theatre in Chicago, she met Jerry Jaros whom she married in 1931. They lived in Cicero, Illinois, and had three children: John, David, and Gail. Fern became a member of the very successful Chicago Women’s Symphony Orchestra (1941-1948). They moved to Los Angeles in 1948 and opened music stores in Westchester and later in Phoenix, Arizona. In 1951 she founded and directed the Westchester Youth Band for the training of young musicians, directing the group for 20 years. She appeared in episodes of “I Love Lucy” and “You Bet Your Life,” with Groucho Marx. Widowed in 1973, she moved to Lake Elsinore where she played with the Sun City Symphony; she moved to Texas in her nineties where she continued to perform well into her nineties. She played piano to entertain seniors in her retirement home.
Fern met saxophone player/band leader Peggy Gilbert in Sioux City, Iowa in the 1920s and were friends until Peggy’s death in 2007. I wrote about Fern in my book, Peggy Gilbert and Her All-Girl Band (Scarecrow Press, 2008) and included several pictures of her. She is also in my documentary film of the same title (www.peggygilbert.org). I met Fern on March 8, 1986 at the Tribute to the Pioneer Women Musicians of Los Angeles, a reunion that I produced at the Ambassador Hotel Ballroom in Los Angeles, sponsored by the International Institute for the Study of Women in Music at California State University Northridge. Peggy and Fern were a part of a network of women instrumentalists who helped one another get jobs, including work in film, television, and night clubs. Fern very generously shared with me programs, news clippings, photographs, and her memories of her early days in all-girl bands.
At age 89, in a letter Fern wrote, “I can’t believe this girl from Loveland, Ohio, played professionally for 80 years, started when I was 9. My dad was a terrific musician and taught us all except the piano. Did you know we played for my sister’s graduation in 1917? Doesn’t seem possible that I’m still alive.” Fern was extraordinary, she inspired several generations of musicians, and she will be remembered. She is survived by her son, John Jaros, daughter Gail McQuary, granddaughters Stacy Jaros and Deborah Demartinos, and two great granddaughters.
Oh, by the way, I’m writing a book on Babe Egan and the Hollywood Redheads and welcome any information anyone has about this amazing all-girl band from the 1920s and 30s.