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Sexism at Its Worst? The History of Jazz Is Full of It

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12 Years a Slave, which has grossed more than $35 million in the United States, demonstrates that there’s a market for films that narrate this country’s most egregious historic ills. The history of sexism in jazz may sound like a minor footnote in American culture, but in Judy Chaikin’s documentary, The Girls in the Band, it becomes a larger-than-life story — one that explains how female instrumentalists in jazz from the 1930s onward faced widespread stereotyping and discrimination. Careers were lost. Lives were altered. The women only wanted to play good music, and some of them did at a very high level.

It’s a side of jazz music that had almost been forgotten until Chaikin finished her movie. “I’d say 90 percent of the jazz musicians working today know absolutely nothing about any of these historical women,” says Chaikin, who worked on the documentary for eight years.

The Girls in the Band opens Friday, January 17, 2014 at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco, Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. The documentary covers the full arc of women in jazz and big-band music, starting in the 1930s and continuing to the present day. As a jumping-off point, the film revisits the famous 1958 photo called A Great Day in Harlem, which gathered the era’s top jazz musicians and posed them in front of a Harlem brownstone. For jazz afficionados, there’s no other photo like it. Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young — you name the musician, and he was there. But of the 57 jazz greats standing in Harlem, only three were women: pianists Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams, and singer Maxine Sullivan.

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm

Chaikin’s film explains the paucity of women through interviews and indices of the times that seem shocking in the 21st century. Take the editorial from 1938 in Downbeat magazine, the bible of jazz music, that was headlined, “Why Women Musicians Are Inferior,” and contained this lead paragraph: “Why is it that outside of a few sepia females, the woman musician was never born capable of ‘sending’ anyone farther than the nearest exit? It would seem that even though women are the weaker sex, they would still be able to bring more out of a defenseless horn than something that sounds like a cry for help.”

Then there’s the story of how Dizzy Gillespie hired trombonist and composer Melba Liston to work with his big band in California, and then heard his big-band members say, “Man, what’d you got to send all the way to the West Coast to get some bitch to arrange our music for?”


Black women musicians had to confront not just sexism but racism. Trumpeter Clora Bryant, who played with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a primarily African-American group, tells Chaikin about traveling in the American South during a bus tour in the mid-1900s. “We’d pull into a service station,” Bryant says, “and the guy would come out with his gun and say, ‘We don’t have any black toilets. You niggers go into the field and squat.'”

The early jazz world also created a heirarchy for women jazz musicians. Women pianists were tolerated. Singers, too. But trumpeters or bassists or practitioners of other instruments? Not really. Those were considered men’s positions.

The early years of jazz did feature a number of all-women big bands like The Ingenues, but they were often marketed as novelties or for their looks, with musicians forced to wear frilly or revealing outfits. Short hair was verboten. It’s surreal to see footage of these groups in one scene after another. Women played in every era of jazz, they just didn’t get viable recognition. In the 1930s, the New York musicians union had 800 women, according to The Girls in the Band.

Why, 100 years after jazz’s birth, is Chaikin’s film one of the first media efforts to explore women in jazz history? “If you look at the history of who writes the history, it’s generally men,” says Chaikin, a veteran filmmaker whose previous documentaries include Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist. “And men generally write about what they know about. If they didn’t know about these women, then they didn’t exist, and it wasn’t of any importance. That’s how women get written out of history, in many different arenas, not just in music.”

The film began with a phone call from a friend, who asked Chaikin if she’d heard of a female jazz instrumentalist who’d played in a big band at the height of the big-band era in the mid-1900s. “We were both from families of musicians, and we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if there really was such a thing: A woman who played in big band,” Chaikin says. “Being a documentary filmmaker, those kinds of questions always pique your curiosity. And I started to do some research. And the next thing, I was discovering not just that there were one or two but there were many women.”

“In the 1930s, with 800 women in the New York Musicians Union, I thought, ‘How could there have been 800 women and none of them had any kind of impact on the music world?’ It’s almost impossible,” Chaikin says. “Some of them had to be really talented. So I started doing the research, and little by little, the story began unfolding.”

Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams

Chaikin interviews such women as Peggy Gilbert, a saxophonist who first played professionally in the 1920s. Gilbert’s career was formidable, and even in her 90s, she was excited to tell Chaikin stories of her career. Like others featured in The Girls in the Band (including Marian McPartland), Gilbert has died since the making of the film.

Growing up, Chaikin studied trumpet and had a brief inkling of what life might be as a musician. She relinquished that dream early on, but she also had no role models to drive her ambition. Her film features a cascade of role models, from women in the early history of jazz to jazz notables today, including Esperanza Spalding. Among the jazz musicians from earlier eras who should be better known today: Trumpeter Clora Bryant; pianist Hazel Scott; pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong (wife of Louis Armstrong); guitarist Mary Osborne; trombonist Melba Liston and saxophonist Vi Redd.

“I came from a musical family — we all played instruments. I studied piano and trumpet, and I played through junior high school. At that time, I could see it was not a career that was very welcoming for women. So I gave it up,” Chaikin says. “That’s why when I met these women, I was bowled over that they had stuck with it through all the difficulties I knew they had faced.”

“If I’d known there were other women who did this,” she adds, “it might have been a completely different ball game. But I didn’t know. And even today, I know there’s a lot of girls who don’t really see this as a career. So this is hopefully going to help them do this.”

Chaikin was able to make the film with funding from two longtime jazz fans with big names of their own: Hugh Hefner and Herb Alpert. Filming ended in 2008. It took three years to get the music rights for many of the featured songs. The film has already played in film festivals and select theaters. At the film’s end, many of the film’s interviewees flew to Harlem to have their photo taken in front of the same brownstone that was used for A Great Day in Harlem. Instead of three women out of 57 men, Chaikin’s film situates three men among the female jazz singers and instrumentalists. It’s a role reversal that is symbolic and fitting.


The Girls in the Band opens Friday, January 17, 2014 at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center. On Friday, January 18, after the Opera Plaza’s 7pm screening, director Judy Chaikin and producer Nancy Kissock will speak, along with musicians Rebeca Mauleon, Linda Tillery, Mary Fettig, and Angela Wellman. At the Rafael Film Center’s screening on Saturday, January 18, 7pm screening, director Judy Chaikin will speak, along with producer Nancy Kissock and musicians Christy Dana, Laura Klein, Destiny Muhammed, Erika Oba, and Ellen Seeling. Producer Nancy Kissock will do a Q&A after the Sunday, January 19, 7:15pm screening at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre. For tickets and more information visit thegirlsintheband.com.

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