Even if you’re not into Jazz you could probably name a slew of Jazz greats like Count Basie, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and likely heard one of their signature standards grace a film or on the radio. “The Girls in the Band”, a new documentary by Judy Chaikin, sheds a long overdue light on the many great female Jazz players from the 20s to the present day, who lived in the shadows of their male counterparts. Like a lot of history, which has been strategically told in history books to suit those in power, thus burying parts that usually deal with minorities, much of those untold stories are finally coming to the surface. Thank goodness for people like Maia Garcia (“Ghosts of Manhattan”), Malik Bendjelloul (“Searching for Sugar Man”) and in this case Chaikin, who has done their research and are now sharing vital parts of American history, paying homage and respect to those unsung heroes, and to inspire future generations.
“The Girls in the Band” paints a vivid picture of a layer of history that was masked by its male counterparts. Chaikin gives a voice to those women that not only existed in the Jazz world, but often times were creating a mark within the Jazz scene that helped further the musical genre. Women like Clora Bryant, Mary Lou Williams, Anna Mae Wynburn, Vi Redd and Lil Armstrong (wife of Louis Armstrong), to name a few, were pioneers in the Jazz world, held their own amongst a male driven industry, and often were sought after by male heavy weights to compose music.
Chaikin’s film shows that talent in the Jazz scene wasn’t enough to overcome sexism and racism. In the late 20s, women in Jazz were thought of as novelties or dressed to look like starlets. Men could have white hair, wear glasses and weigh 300 pounds and that was okay, but a woman had to wear heels, a dress and look glamorous if she wanted to be in the band. The reality was, as Bassist, Carline Ray, states in the film, “You couldn’t tell who was behind the curtain. The music is the thing”. If black male Jazz players had it tough traveling in the South during the Jim Crow era, the women had it a lot rougher just because they were women.
World War 2 created a lot of jobs and touring overseas in the USO for female Jazz bands, but as soon as the war ended, those musician jobs went back to the men. Women were thought to be too soft to be musicians. They were accepted as singers, looking pretty in front of the band. Dr. Billy Taylor, a Jazz Historian and pianist interviewed in the film, states that “Some of the most powerful players that I have ever heard were women Jazz players, and for anyone to say that they weren’t swinging as hard or had the same force is simply untrue.”
“The Girls in the Band” takes us into today’s music scene that is thankfully open and filled with female Jazz leaders who compose, play and lead orchestras. They have the pleasure to create and play freely knowing that their ancestors didn’t have it so easy. Judy Chaikin’s film is entertaining, and more importantly a well-told story of history, that needs to be heard. Those unsung female Jazz musicians that came before were pioneers who followed their passion for music against a backdrop of chauvinism and racism.
“The Girls in the Band” is now being held over for a second week playing January 24th – January 30th at San Francisco’s Landmark Opera Plaza, The Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland and San Rafael’s Smith Rafael Film Center. Visit: www.thegirlsintheband.com