How many female jazz musicians can you name? Judy Chaikin's new documentary The Girls in the Band can help. By the time the credits roll, you will have met three generations of distaff players, composers, arrangers and conductors reaching back to the 1920s. Names like saxophonists Roz Cron and Peggy Gilbert, trumpeters Clora Bryant and Billie Rogers and drummer Viola Smith will roll off the tongue as readily as those of Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.
To underscore just how unsung female artists were, the film opens with Art Kane's historic 1958 group shot “A Great Day in Harlem.” Among the assembled jazz greats are but two women, pianists Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland. The Girls in the Band closes with a recent variation on the photo, this time with two token men amidst a sea of female musicians -- all of whom have impressed us with their talent in the film’s previous frames.
For some of these musicians, the answer to the era’s men-only ensembles was birthing their own bands, such as Peggy Gilbert and her All-Girl Band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears. Beyond sexism, racism was an occupational hazard, especially when traveling in the South. Bryant remembers the tribulations facing integrated bands as they crossed Jim Crow. Entertaining the troops in Europe and the States – including the Tuskegee Airmen -- during World War II proved less of a conflict zone, though returning veterans would soon push many of the women musicians back to the domestic life after the war.
Thanks to some snappy editing by Edward Osei-Gyimah, the film gives a good feel for what it was like to bear both musical ambitions and two X chromosones in the opening decades of big-band jazz and swing. Women were gussied up with silly costumes and, sillier still, they often had to smile while performing, even the horn blowers among them. Arranged into a rousing counterpoint of commentary and archival footage, such lookbacks bring the history to life while providing plenty of laughs along the way.
On a more sobering note, there are stories such as trombonist/composer Melba Liston’s, who exiled herself to Jamaica to escape the routine obstacles she faced stateside. Liston was a regular on Manhattan’s famed 52nd Street and one of Gillespie's favorite arrangers.
Chaiken isn’t content to trace the history and leave it at that. Performing a current sound check, she brings in contemporary artists such as Anat Cohen, Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding and Maria Schneider.
The exercise was meant as much for music’s newer faces as for film audiences, Chaiken explained at a recent post-screening Q&A at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Film Center. Asked about her own story of making the documentary, she recalled the shabby treatment she had experienced from the boys in her school band, where she played the trumpet. So when she heard about a 90-something woman who was supposedly a drummer in a big band during the 1940s, this sparked her curiosity and, ultimately, the production that won warm kudos at Lincoln Center and the documentary audience award at the 2013 Palm Springs International Film Festival.