Peggy Gilbert, a noted saxophonist who helped female jazz musicians gain acceptance over a decades-long career of leading all-women ensembles, died Feb. 12 in Burbank, Calf. of complications of hip surgery. She was 102.
Gilbert was infatuated with the jazz she heard on the radio growing up in Sioux City, Iowa. But when she tried to learn the saxophone in high school, she was told girls could play violin, piano and harp but not wind instruments.
So she turned to a local bandleader for lessons.
“The first time I picked up a sax, I said, This is it!” Gilbert told the Los Angeles Times last year. “I loved the feel of it free and loose.”
A year after graduating high school in 1923, she formed her own all-female jazz band, the Melody Girls, before heading to Los Angeles. It was the first in a string of women ensembles she led over the next several decades at a time when jazz culture was often hostile to female instrumentalists.
Her band performed under various names — including Peggy Gilbert and Her Metro Goldwyn Orchestra, and Peggy Gilbert and Her Coeds — at popular nightclubs, sometimes sharing the bill with jazz titans such as Benny Goodman. It appeared in Hollywood films and toured the vaudeville circuit with George Burns and other stars.
Along the way, she became known as an advocate for women in jazz.
“She often went down to the union and demanded equal opportunity for women instrumentalists,” said her friend Jeannie Pool, a musicologist who recently completed a documentary and a biography of Gilbert. “She was always calling for an end to discrimination.”
More recently, she was known for the Dixie Belles, a Dixieland band of older women she formed in 1974 at age 69 and that performed together until 1998, appearing on several TV shows.
Gilbert is survived by her longtime partner, Kay Boley.