Friday, March 14, 2014


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 Chaikin 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.
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm

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. (Read more)

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