×
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

  • 'Schitt's Creek' Stars Reveal Dream Guest

    'Schitt's Creek' Cast Reveals Dream Guest Stars: Oprah, Beyonce and ...

    “Schitt’s Creek” has big dreams. Dan Levy, who stars as David on the series, says his wish list of guest stars includes Oprah, Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Gwyneth Paltrow. “All for different reasons, none of whom we’ll get,” he cracked at the Critics’ Choice Awards. For those who haven’t caught on to the “Schitt’s Creek” [...]

  • Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bundchen

    Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bündchen to Be Honored at UCLA Science Gala

    Science can be very glamorous. It certainly will be during Oscar week on Feb. 21 when the UCLA Institute of the Environment & Sustainability (IoES) honors Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bündchen for environmental activism at its annual Hollywood for Science Gala. “When I moved to LA, the air was unbreathable. Rivers were catching fire in [...]

  • Don Cheadle and Andrew Rannells Black

    Don Cheadle, Andrew Rannells Talk Snorting 'Coke' on 'Black Monday'

    “Black Monday” show creators David Caspe and Jordan Cahen divulged an intriguing detail to come later in the first season of the new Showtime comedy at its world premiere, held at the Theatre at Ace Hotel on Monday night in Los Angeles. “The fourth or fifth episode opens with a sexual harassment seminar, which very well [...]

  • Alfonso Cuaron attends the 44th Annual

    Alfonso Cuarón to LAFCA: 'Thanks to Your Help We Can Break Down Walls'

    Inclusion was the big winner at the L.A. Film Critics Association Awards, which was held Saturday night at the InterContinental in Century City. “This year’s winners are the most diverse in LAFCA’s 43-year history,” announced its president, Claudia Puig, adding that 14 out of their 18 awards were won by women and people of color. [...]

  • Mandatory Credit: Photo by Max Malandrino/REX/Shutterstock

    Hollywood Power Players Assemble to Save Iconic Deli Nate 'n Al

    A group of Hollywood executives and celebrities have banded together with the intent to save Beverly Hills deli and star haunt Nate ‘n Al, a stone’s throw from tourist destination Rodeo Drive. A consortium of investors including music kingpin Irving Azoff and wife Shelli, Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman Jeff Shell, and Rande Gerber and [...]

  • Charlie Collier, FOX Chief Executive Officer

    'The Passage' Team Talks Diversifying Races, Genders and Ages of Book Characters

    “The Passage” star Saniyya Sidney was unaware that the book version of her character was originally white until her father, a fan of Justin Cronin’s apocalyptic trilogy, informed her during the audition process. “I was like, ‘Oh, she is?'” Sidney told Variety at Thursday’s series premiere in Santa Monica, Calif. “And when I got it, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content