The Girls In The Band
BY Willard Manus
THE GIRLS IN THE BAND, Judith Chaikin's important and long-overdue documentary about the history of American women in jazz, opens with a close-up of the famed 1958 photo, "A Great Day in Harlem." Of the 57 jazz musicians who posed for the shoot, only two were women: the pianists Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Wiiliams.
Chaikin's 86-minute-long film closes with a 2008 clone of "A Great Day in Harlem," only this time every one of the jazz musicians depicted in the photo is a woman.
How and why did the jazz world change in such a significant way? THE GIRLS IN THE BAND answers that question smartly and authoritatively. Using archival footage, feature-film clips, interviews, stills and generous helpings of music to tell her story, writer/director Chaikin has put together a major jazz documentary, one that is as entertaining as it is educational.
There have always been women in jazz but, with rare exceptions (such as Lil Hardin), most of the early pioneers were vocalists. There was a prejudice against female instrumentalists, who were thought to be too timid and weak to play the muscular music called jazz. The boys in the band also believed that women musicians couldn't be trusted and that their sexuality would be too hot to handle.
A few brave and gifted women managed to breach the gender barriers in the first part of the 20th century and prove their detractors wrong, but it wasn't until the swing era, when dance bands became all the craze, that large numbers of women could begin to work professionally. Even then, most of them had to join all-girl bands such as the Ada Leonard Orchestra or the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Several survivors of those bands are interviewed in THE GIRLS IN THE BAND; with the help of rare footage, the octogenarians bring those glory days back to life with pride, humor and affection.
Also shown in action are such early jazz stars as Melba Liston, Hazel Scott, Mary Lou Williams and Clora Bryant. The latter, a trumpeter who was held in high esteem by the bop kings Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, had the distinction of being featured on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Bryant is also one of the talking heads in THE GIRLS IN THE BAND, along with Billy Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Marian McPartland and various jazz historians and critics. The film's main focus, though, is on modern-day female jazz players and composers like Diane Krall, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Maria Schneider, Esperanza Spalding, Geri Allen, Patrice Rushen, Terri Lyne Carrington and Sherrie Maricle. Their accomplishments are highlighted, likewise such all-girl bands as Diva, Jazzwomen and Maiden Voyage.
At a recent Women's Jazz Festival in Kansas City, Maiden Voyage made it a point to invite--and pay tribute to--the last-living members of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. After posing for that "great day in Harlem" photo, the two generations of musicians hung out, talking, joking, swapping war stories, sometimes even picking up their instruments and jamming together.
As Herbie Hancock said after viewing THE GIRLS IN THE BAND, "It was a vivid experience. I sat there watching and just wiping tears away...tears of joy."
(One Step Productions, www.thegirlsintheband.com)