The Girls In The Band

July 21, 2013

A prize-winning documentary film, Judy Chaikin’s The Girls In The Band is a rewarding, entertaining, and revealing exploration of what life was like in the 1930s and 1940s for people who did not fit into preconceptions of what made a jazz musician. The fact that they could play well, often brilliantly, whether as soloist or in ensemble, were reliable both on and off the bandstand, were not given to complaining, could withstand the rigors of life on the road (which included institutionalized racism), was immaterial. The reason why they were frequently overlooked, often derided, if not both, was because they were women.the_girls_in_the_band_poster_a_p

Back then, treating women as inferiors was not, of course, confined to the jazz world. Far from it. As the 20th century began, a woman’s place was that of an all-purpose maid in the home. And while a woman might have control in the kitchen, a woman in the workplace was obliged to occupy a subordinate role, again often as cleaner or cook. Finding a woman as scientist or doctor or lawyer was almost impossible. The teaching profession was different; there women might enjoy useful and fulfilling careers, providing they didn’t expect to paid the same rate as men and avoided imagining that an ability to rock the cradle meant that they could try rocking the boat. As for sex! What women had to endure in that often cruel part of life is hard to comprehend. (And before anyone takes issue, yes, I know that this last point is a long, long way from being eradicated worldwide, even today, but this site is, after all, mostly about jazz.) The early 1900s were hard for women everywhere in all areas of society; even in the world of the arts, most of those same attitudes that had dogged women through earlier centuries prevailed as an attempt to list women painters or sculptors or composers or writers active before 1900 will reveal. A few writers perhaps, but the others . . .

The performing arts are another matter. There, plays needed actors of both sexes, as did the worlds of dance and song. But what of musicians who did not sing but chose to play instruments? A hangover from earlier centuries of society’s attitudes meant that while a few women from middle- and upper-class backgrounds might learn to play the piano, or perhaps the violin, almost every other musical instrument was disapproved. Thus there existed in the early 1900s active barriers that women had to overcome if they entered the world of popular entertainment. In vaudeville theaters (music halls in the UK), women would sing but rarely played an instrument; even playing the piano in public was a rarity. As jazz began to make its early appearances, although men played instruments women were again allocated a confined role; they could sing, but that was pretty much it. Blue Notes-stretched-xtraThen, very slowly, there began to appear in early jazz a few female instrumentalists, almost always pianists although one or two might play the guitar. It was not until the early 1930s, as a second generation of jazz musicians came onto the scene, that women ventured, however tentatively, into the wider range of instrumental jazz. Sadly, these pioneering women were not welcomed with open arms; far from it. The world of entertainment was dominated by men, not only on bandstands but also the ownership of clubs and theaters, control of recording companies and radio corporations; and newspaper and magazine critics were also men. Instead of offering a welcome, those men who controlled this world, a world they knew to be a hard one in which to make a living let alone a mark, shunned women, subjecting them to ridicule or offensive disdain or worse. Women, then, were forced to fight not only the world outside jazz, but also the inside world in which they were eager to live and work, a world that really should have known better.

Fortunately, those women, however small in number they might have been, were not only skilled musicians, they were also tough and determined; against heavy and unfair odds some of them made a lasting mark on jazz. 

OJC/Riverside Records

OJC/Riverside Records

Yet this mark has been consistently overlooked through lack of informed historical research, or sexually-biased attitudes in the record industry, and many other areas where men have clung onto control. 

Jazz Classics Records

Jazz Classics Records

Before the 1980s there were many reissues of records by female singers but those made by instrumentalists were rare. A few appeared, Lil Hardin Armstrong and Mary Lou Williams for example, the latter being generally well-served over the years, but they were exceptions from what was the norm. Then, in 1984 Rosetta Reitz issued an album by The International Sweethearts of Rhythm revealing an extraordinary, dynamic band of outstanding musicians.

Rosetta Records

Rosetta Records

Things began to change for the better and reissues of more female instrumentalists appeared, paralleling the slow but steady rise in the numbers of a new generation of women bringing instrumental skills to jazz. But progress was slow and availability of the work of their predecessors remained spotty. A valuable addition to information about these women came in 1986 with a Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss film that told the story of the Sweethearts. What was missing though was an informed overview of what life was like for those remarkable pioneering jazz instrumentalists who defied expectations and the odds to carve out invaluable careers.

Now, film maker Judy Chaikin has righted that particular wrong. It is through the lives and reminiscences of a number of these women that Judy’s film tells the story of their struggle. In one sense this story is shaming to men in jazz but in another more important sense it is a shining tribute to some extraordinary musicians who just happened to be women. The film begins with the 1958 assembly of jazz musicians on a street in Harlem for a photo-call. Just about everyone who was anyone was there and by no means irrelevant is the head count; when Art Kane’s camera clicked for A Great Day In Harlem of the fifty-seven musicians present only three were women. Perhaps at the time no one thought this was in any way unusual but hindsight tells us that it was a deplorable oversight. From this point onwards the story of women instrumentalists in jazz is told by those who should have been in that photograph, who were entitled to be there, because they were an important part of what happened in jazz – particularly in the previous quarter-century.

The first speaker is trumpeter Clora Bryant and she is succeeded by musicians such as fellow trumpeter Billie Rogers, saxophonists Peggy Gilbert, Roz Cron, and Willie Mae Wong, trombonists Helen Woods and Jessie Bailey, bassist Carline Ray, drummers Viola Smith and Jerrie Thill, and pianist Marian McPartland. (In passing, Marian McPartland was one of the three women on the 1958 photo shoot, the others being Mary Lou Williams, also a pianist, and Maxine Sullivan, a singer. The significance of Williams as a groundbreaking arranger in the success of Andy Kirk’s band is rightly stressed.) These reminiscences are filled with vivid anecdotes, some deep in philosophical understanding, and are told with wit and humor. All of those named here (and all of the many others interviewed) are blessed with an ability to communicate and make real for all of us that long-ago world in which they strove for equality and understanding and in the process made so much wonderful music.

VSOP Records

VSOP Records

Concord Records

Concord Records

Interspersed with the reminiscences of these women are clips of them in performances that ably demonstrate their considerable skill. There are also clips of other instrumentalists, including Hazel Scott, Valaida Snow, Vi Burnside, Mary Osborne, Vi Redd, Terry Pollard and Lil Hardin Armstrong, while Toshiko Akiyoshi and Melba Liston from a slightly later period are also heard. The bands on display include The Fayettes, Ina Ray Hutton’s Melodears, and The International Sweethearts Of Rhythm. 

DRG Records

DRG Records

WEA Records

WEA Records

The reminiscences are mainly upbeat, all the women having clearly loved their musical careers, but here and there some of the less than happy moments are relived. Especially notable is Roz Cron’s moving recollection of how, as a young inexperienced white women, she encountered Jim Crow at its most pernicious.

Fresh Sound Records

Fresh Sound Records

Towards the end of this fine film, some instrumentalists who are active today appear and talk about how those earlier women inspired them in their chosen careers. Among these instrumentalists are drummers Terri Lyne Carrington and Sherrie Maricle, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, saxophonist Anat Cohen, and bassist Esperanza Spalding. They too are seen and heard playing and there are also appearances by Maria Schneider, JoAnne Brackeen, Maiden Voyage, DIVA, Diana Krall and Hiromi Uehara.

Women instrumentalists apart, there are contributions from Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg, founders of the KC Women’s Jazz Festival, and there’s also a handful of men, some of them musicians: Herbie Hancock, Dr Billy Taylor; and academics and others: Dr Tammy Kernodle, Father Peter O’Brien, James Briggs Murray.

Judy Chaikin closes her remarkable 90-minute film with a 2008 gathering in Harlem of a group of mainly instrumentalists for another photograph. This time, fifty years on from the original, there are seventy-one participants and all but three are women. Quite right, too.the_girls_in_the_band_poster_a_p

Screened at numerous locations in the USA The Girls In The Band has also been shown in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Dubai and Spain. Among several awards have been those won at film festivals held in Atlanta GA, Cleveland OH, Dubai, High Falls GA, Omaha NE, Palm Springs CA, St. George UT, Vancouver BC, Victoria BC, and Washington DC.

Judy Chaikin hopes that her film will be screened in the UK in the not-too distant future and she also has plans for Internet streaming. Everyone with an interest in jazz, particularly women in jazz, should do all that they can to help these hopes and plans come to fruition.

The Girls In The Band

Director: Judy Chaikin

Editor: Edward Osei-Gyimah

Producers: Judy Chaikin, Michael Greene, Nancy Kissock, and Erin Li

For more information, including regular updates on screenings, see the The Girls In The Band website.

 

Jazz Family – Take 2

February 17, 2013

With seemingly effortless ease, jazz singer Catherine Russell performs her art with exceptional skill. Melodic grace, a lilting sense of swing, profound understanding and interpretation of lyrics, are all elements of her style, which she brings to a repertoire that is exceptionally attractive with its often intriguing selection of songs. Intriguing because while the composers and lyricists are frequently those associated with the great American popular classics of the 1920s and 30s and 40s, the songs Catherine presents are often little-known gems that slipped out of sight and have been seldom performed in the following decades.

World VillageWV 468063

World Village
WV 468063

The surprise a listener might feel on hearing this singer and her repertoire vanishes when her background is revealed, because Catherine Russell’s musical roots lie in her immediate family. For her, nature has been at least as important as nurture. Catherine’s musical blood, and her jazz genes, come from both her mother and her father, and both parents were steeped in music, especially jazz, and enjoyed notable careers in earlier years.

Catherine’s mother was Carline Ray, who was born in New York City in 1925 into a musical family, her father being a trained classical musician who also played with James Reese Europe’s groundbreaking band. In her mid-teens Carline attended the Juilliard School of Music, studying composition and also developing an interest in jazz and becoming skilled on guitar and double bass. On graduating from Juilliard in 1946, she joined the International Sweethearts Of Rhythm, playing guitar and singing. After this, Carline sang and played guitar with the Erskine Hawkins band before forming a trio with former Sweethearts bandmates, bassist Edna Smith and drummer Pauline Braddy. The trio played at various clubs in New York and Carline also played in other bands and continued with her musical studies, receiving a master’s degree in voice isofrThis was in 1956, the year she also married Luis Russell whom she had met when the trio played at a club he managed in New York. During the next several years, Carline sang and also played guitar and double bass with various groups and in many different musical settings, among which are jazz, popular music, and classical music; in the latter form she became especially noted for her work in choral music. In later years, Carline played and sang with jazz musicians as diverse as Arnie Lawrence, on Look Towards A Dream,Jimmy Smith, Stay Loose, and Mary Lou Williams, Mary Lou’s Mass, these recordings coming during the late 1960s and early 70s.

In the 1990s, Carline Ray was still active, playing bass with Red Richards, Swing Time, and as backing singer with Ruth Brown, Live In London., recorded at Ronnie Scott’s. In 2003, Carline sang with Kit McClure’s big band that recorded The Sweethearts Project, a tribute to the International Sweethearts Of Rhythm.

 

Catherine’s father, Luis Russell, was an important bandleader and arranger, his true standing often clouded because of his association with Louis Armstrong, whose dazzling star inevitably dimmed the light of those around him. Luis Carl Russell was born in Panama in 1902 and through the influence of his father, a music teacher, he developed skills on several instruments including guitar, violin and piano. He played piano in silent movie theatrs and at local clubs before uprooting and settling in New Orleans in his mid-teens. There he concentrated on playing piano and was soon an active participant in the city’s flourishing music scene. Although he played in bands led by front-rank musicians, Luis possessed the necessary qualities to be himself a bandleader and his groups were in great demand in New Orleans in the early 1920s. In mid-decade however, he answered a call to join Doc Cooke’s band in Chicago where he also played in King Oliver’s band, but after a few years he was again leading a band, this time in New York City.

ASV Living EraCD AJA 5658

ASV Living Era
CD AJA 5658

Through the late 1920s and into the early 30s, Luis led his band in clubs both in the city and on tour and was one of only a few leaders who, through his arrangements, sought to adapt elements of the music of New Orleans into the burgeoning big band music of the swing era. It was during this period that the band frequently backed Louis Armstrong, then in an early stage of his solo career. This connection became so strong that in late 1935 the billing was changed and Luis’s band became known as Louis Armstrong’s Orchestra. Luis Russell stayed on as musical director, playing piano and arranging and all this while continuing his musical studies, something he had never suspended for long wherever he happened to be working. In 1943, Luis left the Armstrong entourage and formed a new band that he led for a few more years. In 1948, he bowed out of a full-time career in music although he continued to play with pick-up groups and even returned to Panama for a classical music engagement. Also through these years that led into the early 1960s, he managed clubs and, like his father before him, taught music. Luis Russell died in 1963.

With parents like Carline Ray and Luis Russell it is hardly surprising that Catherine Russell is so thoroughly steeped in music, singing and arranging with considerable skill. This last observation, together with foregoing remarks about her choice of songs, should not lead anyone into misconstruing the use of the word ‘steeped’ – in no way should this be taken to suggest that Catherine Russell is mired in the past. Far from it. She is fully aware of the changes that have taken place in jazz and other forms of popular music during her lifetime. On the path she has taken as she has honed her art are spells as backing singer for pop acts such as David Bowie, Madonna and Steely Dan. And while her repertoire includes lesser-known gems by the great composers of the past, she is also heard singing the music of today; but underpinning all that she does with the solid foundation of all that has helped make jazz eternal.

World VillageWV 468075

World Village
WV 468075

Among the songs she sings are, on Cat, Can’t We Be Friends, Blue Memories and Darn That Dream, on Sentimental Streak, Oh Yes, Take Another Guess and You For Me, Me For You, while on Inside This Heart Of Mine, Catherine allows contemporary songs, such as November and Just Because You Can, to rub congenial shoulders with jazz and blues classics, like Inside This Heart Of Mine, a seldom-heard song by Fats Waller, All The Cats Join In and Struttin’ With Some Barbecue. On Strictly Romancin’, the songs Catherine sings are all decades old, yet are sung by her, to her own arrangements, as if they are newly minted: Romance In The Dark, Everybody Loves My Baby, I’m Checking Out, Goom’Bye, Ev’ntide and He’s All I Need.

World VillageWV 468092

World Village
WV 468092

The last title is a song composed by gospel stars of yesteryear Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight and for this performance Catherine is joined in a vocal duet by her mother, Carline Ray, thus effectively and endearingly completing the circle of her musical life.

Without question, Catherine Russell is an outstanding jazz singer who effortlessly brings elements of the blues and bop and latterday pop into the jazz fold with love and understanding. Hearing her sing is an endless pleasure and one that all who love jazz singing should share.

Longer reviews of Inside This Heart Of Mine and Strictly Romancin’ appear in Jazz Journal in, respectively, September 2010 and June 2012. As always, any of the albums referred to above can be found at many stores, including Amazon.

World VillageWV 468101

World Village
WV 468101

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