Film Review – The Girls in the Band
The Girls in the Band
I like jazz. I like it a lot. Punk rock saved my life, but jazz helped give it meaning. I never feel more cool than I do when I listen to Moanin’ by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Even on the 200th listen, I am as blown away as I was when I first heard it. I’m also a supporter of Rain City Rock Camp for Girls, a Seattle organization that fosters self-esteem through music. It’s an awesome group and I’ve had a ton of fun working with girls and teaching them how to play music together. So why-o-why do I know nothing about the history of women musicians in jazz? I know a few contemporary names, but my historical knowledge is limited to a few very famous singers. There’s a big hole in my education, and I imagine that I am not alone.
Well, there’s a cure for my ignorance: a new film directed by Judy Chaikin, The Girls in the Band. It tells the story of jazz from the female musician perspective. Featuring interviews and spotlights on a myriad of artists such as Marian McPartland, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Billie Rogers, Roz Cron, Clora Bryant, Mary Lou Williams, Vi Redd, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and many more, it focuses on instrumentalists rather than singers and details their struggles to get gigs and be taken seriously by their male counterparts. When the film does deal with men, it mentions the ones who employed women or gave them a hand up, not the ones who kept them out of work. (There may have been too many to mention.) This film is less about what women couldn’t do, and more about the women who did and the interesting details of their stories.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s when jazz and big band music were all the rage, female musicians had a hard time getting gigs with the established male bands. The fellows didn’t want the ladies messing up their game, and everybody knew that women couldn’t play nearly as well as men. Women who wanted to play jazz—and even without any role models there were plenty of them—had to perform in all-female groups like Ina Ray Hutton’s Melodears and The Ada Leonard Orchestra. These groups were more than just novelty acts; they featured strong performers who were versatile and accomplished. Many of the problems the women faced on the road were the same as the men: the uncertainty of a musical career, the stress of being on tour, and troubles with integration. Most bands were either black or white, but a few groups, like the predominantly African American The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, welcomed Asian, Indian, and Latino musicians as well. At one point they hired a white woman, Roz Cron, who fit right in, until they toured in the south. Turns out, everything was fine as long as everyone knew their places. An integrated band was a target for local law enforcement, and many times Roz just found it easier to stay on the bus.
But these are all pretty standard issues for any band—male or female—in the forties. The women had additional annoyances to deal with. At the time, male bands often wore matching outfits. The ladies were also required to wear a uniform, but rather than being something that made them look professional, their costumes were pink, frilly monstrosities or something designed to spice up their sex appeal. One interviewee in the film mentions that they weren’t allowed to wear comfortable saddle shoes on stage for fear everyone would think they were lesbians. (The horror!) Women were often hired or not, based on their looks rather than their abilities, and if you weren’t that good looking, you’d probably better be funny. During World War II, women musicians were in high demand, as they were in all professions because a lot of the men were overseas. Once the war ended, many women found themselves out of a job and struggled to continue their careers. Many just gave up to become homemakers or teachers. The film shows how this changed over time, and includes interviews with current musicians who accept their place in the jazz scene as rightfully theirs.
The best part about this movie is the music; there are so many great performances. If you have any doubts about the ability of women in jazz, this film will get rid them. The film is informative and fun, but the quality of the music stands on its own. This is not just a film for feminists and jazz-lovers, (although feminist jazz freaks are going to LOVE it) it’s for anyone who likes great movies. Documentaries are hard sometimes because they tend to play to niche audiences, but if you have 90 minutes, want to hear some great music and learn a little history, this is the film for you.