×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Girls in the Band

The hidden history of women in jazz is treated with a fan's enthusiasm and musical depth in Judy Chaikin's lovingly rendered "The Girls in the Band." Plentiful screen time for three generations of femme jazzers, led by energetic and witty gals from the golden age of big band and swing who unlock a treasure trove of memories, make this a real crowdpleaser (it won the Palm Springs fest's documentary audience award). A lock for widespread fest travels and ancillary sales, the pic may prompt a rewrite of jazz history.

With:
With: Roz Cron, Clora Bryant, Billie Rogers, Peggy Gilbert, Viola Smith, Carline Ray, Herbie Hancock, Terry Lyne Carrington, Jane Ira Bloom, Geri Allen, Anat Cohen, Esperanza Spalding, Billy Taylor, James Briggs Murray, Tammy Kernodle, Peter O'Brien.

The hidden history of women in jazz is treated with a fan’s enthusiasm and musical depth in Judy Chaikin’s lovingly rendered “The Girls in the Band.” Plentiful screen time for three generations of femme jazzers, led by energetic and witty gals from the golden age of big band and swing who unlock a treasure trove of memories, make this a real crowdpleaser (it won the Palm Springs fest’s documentary audience award). A lock for widespread fest travels and ancillary sales, the pic may prompt a rewrite of jazz history.

The search for women’s contribution to the form begins here with the legendary “Great Day in Harlem” group photo taken in August 1958, featuring virtually every major American jazz artist of the time, from Thelonious Monk to Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins to Dizzy Gillespie. There are also two women, introduced with the lingering question: “Who are they?” (The answer is revealed later, but jazz mavens will easily recognize them as piano greats Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland.)

Led by ebullient sax player Roz Cron (whose memories inspired Chaikin to begin the project), a group of players from the 1930s and 1940s relate their triumphs and struggles as they describe the contradictions and sexism faced by talented distaff musicians in this male-dominated world. Cron, Clora Bryant, Billie Rogers, Peggy Gilbert and Viola Smith (among many others) all grew up around music and were encouraged by their parents to follow that path in an era when such career options were conventionally frowned upon for children.

Generally barred from bands in which men were exclusively members, many of the women formed or joined all-female groups, ranging from the highly successful touring band the International Sweethearts of Rhythm to the Ada Leonard Orchestra, the Melodears and the Ingenues. The plentiful and remarkably vivid performance clips (edited with aplomb by co-writer Edward Osei-Gyimah) are proof positive of the women’s chops, which, if heard with one’s eyes closed, defy old gender stereotypes that women couldn’t keep up with men on the more “physical” instruments like horns and percussion.

In perhaps the pic’s emotional highlight, Cron recalls being one of the few white players in the diverse Sweethearts band as it toured the South during the waning days of Jim Crow. “I felt ashamed of my race,” says Cron, describing such efforts as trying to darken her face with makeup to blend in. More bittersweet are nods to great but neglected artists who were sometimes compelled to exit the performing and recording jazz scene, including saxophonist Vi Redd and trombonist/arranger Melba Liston.

Typical of the docu’s complex story is a sequence exclusively focused on Williams, whose unique career was marked by her sudden retreat from the jazz scene after rising to the art’s creme de la creme, only to re-emerge as a brilliant pianist devoted to Catholicism before a gradual return to the mainstream.

Liston herself eventually came out of retirement with a ’70s-era resurgence of women’s presence in jazz, including Kansas City’s respected women’s jazz fest (the first of its kind) and the rise of such players as Toshiko Akioshi, Joanne Brackeen, Carla Bley (seen too little here), Patrice Rushen, Jane Ira Bloom and, later, Terry Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding. As Bloom observes, the opportunities for women in jazz have directly paralleled developments in women’s social liberation since the ’70s. The present-day good news has the effect of placing the older women’s stories into a more poignant context, leading to a powerfully emotional finish.

Filming of talking-heads segments by a numbers of lensers is standard, but Chaikin elicits terrific responses and anecdotes from her enthusiastic jazzwomen. The filmmakers are planning a shorter version for the education market.

The Girls in the Band

Production: An Artist Tribe/One Step production. Produced by Judy Chaikin, Michael Greene, Nancy Kissock. Executive producer, Greene. Co-producer, Hugh M. Hefner. Directed by Judy Chaikin. Written by Chaikin, Edward Osei-Gyimah.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Joey Forsyte, Tom Kaufman, Tom Hurwitz, Eddie Marritz, Nancy Schreiber, Mark Allensworth, Jason Nabb, Mark Lewis; editor, Osei-Gyiman; sound (stereo), Peter Miller, Steven Corbiere, Roger Phenix, David Lankton; supervising sound editors, Victoria Sampson, Robert Braun; re-recording mixer, Derek Jones; associate producers, Erin M. Li, Kelly Ann Sharman. Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival (True Stories), Jan. 14, 2012. (Also in 2011 Dubai, Vancouver film festivals.) Running time: 87 MIN.

Cast: With: Roz Cron, Clora Bryant, Billie Rogers, Peggy Gilbert, Viola Smith, Carline Ray, Herbie Hancock, Terry Lyne Carrington, Jane Ira Bloom, Geri Allen, Anat Cohen, Esperanza Spalding, Billy Taylor, James Briggs Murray, Tammy Kernodle, Peter O'Brien.

More Scene

  • Lilli Cooper Tootsie

    How the 'Tootsie' Musical Was Updated for the #MeToo Era

    Turning the beloved 1982 comedy “Tootsie” into a 21st century musical already seemed like a challenge when work on the adaptation began back in 2016. Then the #MeToo movement revved up — and the writers knew they couldn’t tell Dorothy’s story for a modern audience without it. “It’s different than it was when the movie [...]

  • Ralph Fiennes attends a special screening

    Ralph Fiennes on Directing Rudolf Nureyev Biopic: 'It's Been a Very, Very Long Road'

    Ralph Fiennes celebrated his latest directorial outing, “The White Crow,” on Monday night in New York City. The Sony Pictures Classics film tells the story of legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev. “It’s been a very, very long road. We were mad. We were mad to take on this subject of Rudolf Nureyev. Mad. Completely mad,” Fiennes [...]

  • Taylor Swift Time 100 Performance

    Watch Taylor Swift's Time 100 Gala Performance and Speech

    Just two nights out from Taylor Swift D-day spring 2019 — i.e., Thursday’s release of a new single — Swift made an appearance Tuesday at the Time 100 event in New York, where she did not let loose with any spoiler performances of new music but did sing a few fan favorites, including “Style,” “Delicate,” and [...]

  • Katie HolmesAT&T Presents: Untold Stories Luncheon

    Katie Holmes, Kal Penn Help Decide Winner of $1 Million Filmmaker Grant

    Tribeca Film Festival and AT&T gave one young filmmaker a million and one reasons to rejoice at the “Untold Stories” third annual competition. After a nerve-wracking 10-minute long pitch in front of over 850,000 live stream audience members and a panel consisting of celebrities and industry leaders, filmmaker Kate Tsang was awarded $1 million Monday [...]

  • Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow'Hillary and Clinton'

    Why John Lithgow Worried About Starring in Broadway's 'Hillary and Clinton'

    When Lucas Hnath first conceived of “Hillary and Clinton” in 2008, he was writing for and about a very different America. Now, a total reimagining of the show has made its way to Broadway with Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in the titular roles. At the opening on Thursday night, the cast and creatives talked [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Took 12 Years to Get to Broadway, but It's More Relevant Than Ever

    When “Hadestown” was first staged as a tiny, DIY theater project in Vermont, those involved could never have predicted that it was the start of a 12-year journey to Broadway — or how painfully relevant it would be when it arrived. At Wednesday night’s opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre, the cast and creatives discussed [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content