Femme jazz musicians get their due in cheer-worthy ‘Girls in the Band’
We’re in a very fertile period for music documentaries at the moment, non-fiction films that explore hidden corners of our cultural musical heritage that too many of us never even knew existed. The latest case in point is Judy Chaikin’s smart, informative, and rewarding The Girls In the Band. Her subject is the pioneering female musicians who have battled racism, sexism, and every other kind of obstacle to play jazz onstage, from the big band era of the 1930s and ’40s, and on into the present day.
Female musicians in big bands? Bet you can’t think of a single one. That’s a problem Chalking sets out to redress, introducing us to singular women like Clara Bryant, self-described “trumpetiste,” sax-player Peggy Hilbert, alto sex virtuoso Roz Cron, trumpet-player Billie Rogers, and pianist Marian McPartland. And these are just some of the women who are still around to tell their stories to Chaikin on-camera. Through deft use of archival photos, and some truly amazing film, video, and kinescope footage, Chaikin reveals the depth and diversity of talent involved in this forgotten chapter of American musical history.
Of course, “girl singers” were standard issue in the popular big bands and swing orchestras of the ’30s and ’40s. The occasional female pianist was tolerated too; at least she could sit demurely in a gown. But women horn-players found it almost impossible to get a job in a male band. For one thing, horns were considered too masculine an instrument. Women onstage were supposed to smile, recalls Hilbert, “But how can you smile with a horn in your mouth?” Male band members also resisted women musicians, as one woman recalls, on the grounds that “We can’t talk the way we want to, and besides, they can’t play very well.”
So “girl bands” started to crop up with names like The Ingénues and The Fayettes where women could play. (One recalls being mortified over the ruffled pink dresses they were expected to wear onstage.) Best known were the Ina Rae Hutton Band (we hear a male broadcast announcer call Hutton “that pretty little spitfire of syncopation”), and The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. The lesser known were booked into venues like strip clubs. Roz Cron, of the Sweethearts, recalls a scary tour of the segregated South where black and white musicians couldn’t lodge together and had to sleep in their bus.
When Johnny marched off to World War II, opportunities opened up for female musicians. Billie Rogers was hired to play trumpet in Woody Herman’s orchestra. Female bands toured American military bases in Europe with the USO. And even though musicians, like other American women, were expected to “go back to the kitchen” after the war, postwar ’50s New York City became a Mecca for experimental jazz practitioners of all races and genders. Clora Bryant played with both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Vi Redd carved out a career as an incendiary jazz saxophonist. Still, when Art Kane took a famous 1958 photo of leading jazz musicians in a Harlem street, they were almost entirely male.
Besides the stories told by the women themselves, Chaikin includes a few succinct video clips to show what these performers were up against. (A smugly clueless male emcee tells jazz great McPartland that her gender must be “an advantage, because you’re so decorative.”) Sometimes, the challenges were too much. Trombonist/arranger Melba Liston gave up performing to teach music in Jamaica. Mary Lou Williams, one of the most influential of jazz pianists, dropped out of sight for years, only to resurface teaching music to inner city kids and writing a Catholic-inspired jazz oratorio.
Since the Women’s Movement of the ’70s, Chaikin shows how these pioneer musicians are starting to get their due. The Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City, begun in 1977, is a huge annual event. Chaikin cites a resurgence in female big bands like Maiden Voyage, Diva, and the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, while artists like Esperanza Spalding praise “the women who came before us,” who were “so brave” in blazing the trail for the next generations.
Chaikin employs great visuals, from vintage performance footage, playbills, and theatre marquees, to photo albums whose images spring to life onscreen. And when she reunites dozens of these female pioneers in Harlem to replicate Kane’s photo, you’ll cheer!
THE GIRLS IN THE BAND ★ ★ ★1/2 (out of four) A Judy Chaikin film. With Cora Bryant, Peggy Hilbert, Billie Rogers, and Marian McPartland. (Not rated) 81 minutes.