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.
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. Then, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.