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.