Last night, I went to see The Girls in the Band, a documentary about female jazz musicians at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It was absolutely inspiring. It focused largely of the women in the golden age of jazz in the 1930s and 1940s but it talked about the present day.
Until I read this amazing review in the Chicago Tribune, it hadn’t even occurred to me that I didn’t know the name of a single female horn player or a drummer. Not a one. And I love jazz and play the saxophone. I know that there were some pianists and definitely singers. And that’s a damn shame. And here’s just a few incredible woman mentioned in the documentary: Rox Cron, saxophonist; Melba Liston, trombonist; Marian McPartland, pianist; Clora Bryant, trumpeter; Vi Redd, saxophonist; and Mary Lou Williams, pianist and composer. And many more.
This documentary was a wonderful mix of the lives of various musicians working in all girl bands or mixed gender bands. The film contained lots of amazing footage of these bands and the individual musicians rocking out in their solos. They detailed their highlights, like when Roz Cron was invited to join the interracial band International Sweethearts of Rhythm or when the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival got Melba Liston to start playing trombone again. They also mentioned the importance of Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis Armstrong’s second wife, who played a pivotal part in his career. She was a great pianist and composer in her own right, and even died in the middle of a concert in memory of her late ex-husband.
The women detailed their low points, like when the International Sweethearts of Rhythm went on tour in the Jim Crow South. The band was particularly dangerous since it had two white women in it. Interracial anything was considered taboo and dangerous. They talked about the double standard of appearance. Men could be old, graying, rotund and/or wear glasses. Women, on the other hand, were expected to look like movie stars. Promoters would ask for girls to be removed if they weren’t pretty enough, disregarding their talent. Sometimes they’d be forced to wear ridiculous outfits like pink frilly dresses.
My only comment is that the documentary did a lot to discuss race and gender, I wish it had spent some time talking about sexuality. It briefly mentioned how women were not allowed to wear saddle shoes since it was considered a sign of homosexuality. But that’s as much as it got. It would have been nice to have talked about gender norms and sexuality of the musicians.
So if you like women’s history, jazz history, or just great music, check out this documentary. Help make future generations of musicians know the names of the foremothers!