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Let's hear it for the girls

Jazz may have been colour blind, but not gender friendly, veterans of female bands attest

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Jazz musicians have always been deemed hipper than the average square, and with good reason. When it came to race, most musicians worthy of the name would never have withheld their appreciation or respect from fellow musicians according to any colour barrier.

When it came to gender issues, however, male jazz musicians could close ranks, especially when it came to the notion of women joining the band. Singers and pianists may have been deemed acceptable, but women were widely deemed incapable or inferior when it came to handling more daunting "physical" instruments such as drums and brass.

Pointedly, this film begins with footage of Art Kane's classic 1958 photo A Great Day in Harlem, which featured a staggering array of jazz greats -- Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Krupa, Thelonious Monk -- assembled for a group photo. Only two women -- pianists Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams -- are present. The question arises: Where are all the rest of the women?

Director Judy Chaikin provides a vivid answer with this excellent, hugely entertaining doc. Chaikin doesn't come to bury the old-fashioned male jazz dinosaur but to praise the women who worked in jazz from the 1920s to today.

And in her favour, she has lots of excellent footage of performers and all-female jazz bands. One might think Chaikin would have had to borrow footage from Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, which depicted a couple of men in drag undercover with a '30s female band -- Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators. But it turns out that wasn't necessary given lots of entertaining footage from authentic bands of the '30s and '40s, particularly the sublimely named International Sweethearts of Rhythm. (And by the way, if Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears performing the song Truckin' doesn't put a smile on your face, you must have been born without a mouth.)

Fortunately, many women from those bands survive and give testimony today, particularly saxophonist and International Sweetheart Roz Cron, who reportedly inspired the making of this film with her amazing recollections. Cron's stories include poignant descriptions of working in the south when Jim Crow laws made performing in an integrated band a highly dangerous proposition. Cron, who is Caucasian, was subject to experiments to darken her skin, which, she says, rendered her orange.

The all-female band enjoyed a boom during the Second World War, when many male musicians were called up. When the war ended, women musicians, like the Rosie the Riveters who worked in the manufacturing sector, had to "go back to the kitchen" to relinquish their roles to returning male musicians.

Talented women such as Mary Lou Williams and trombonist-arranger Melba Liston virtually gave up performing (albeit temporarily), until a revival in the '70s, culminating in the birth of the Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival. It's safe to say that fest either hosted or ushered in respected contemporary jazz players including Diana Krall, Toshiko Akioshi, Carla Bley and Esperanza Spalding.

Curiously, Chaikin never brings up the pertinent story of Billy Tipton, a jazz musician and band leader who had a long career presenting himself as a man but who was in fact biologically female.

The recollections range from sad to raucously funny, including Marian McPartland's droll explanation as to why her cornetist husband Jimmy McPartland didn't make the Great Day in Harlem photo shoot.

One woman musician caustically reports that Tommy Dorsey's One Night Stand was more than the name of a record.

Friday night's 7 p.m. screening of The Girls in the Band at Cinematheque will be introduced by singer and jazz vocal instructor Anna-Lisa Kirby. The other screening is Thursday, Nov. 29, at 7 p.m.

Other voices

Selected excerpts of reviews of The Girls in the Band.

"Chaikin elicits terrific responses and anecdotes from her enthusiastic jazzwomen. "

-- Robert Kohler, Variety

"Like most of us, a number of the latter-day women of jazz knew nothing about such forebears until well into their careers; the film is an important step toward repairing the broken links and resurrecting almost a century of music and the women who made it."

-- Sheri Linden, Hollywood Reporter

"A fascinating, moving and wonderfully tuneful documentary, Judy Chaikin's absorbing The Girls in the Band is a real treat for music-lovers -- especially jazz fans -- as well as being a powerful examination of the struggles by talented musicians to break into the resolutely male world of jazz."

-- Mark Adams, Screen Daily

Movie Review

The Girls in the Band

Directed by Judy Chaikin



86 minutes

4 stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2012 D7

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