Ladies, Strike Up The Band!
Note from the editor: Q&A interview with some of today’s female jazz musicians begins on the second page.
A Five Star Salute to Women in Jazz
Judy Chaikin’s spectacularly sassy film, The Girls in the Band, showcasing the women who learned how to toot their own horn when their male counterparts said no, should be an inspiration to female musicians everywhere. But these “babes” didn’t wait until the 21st century for a talented director like Chaikin to celebrate their cause. They blared their trumpets, banged their drums and hit the ivory keys from coast to coast with gusto and grandeur, paving the way for legions of talented women to follow.
Some of these early renegades formed their own bands, like Peggy Gilbert. Chaikin was fortunate enough to be able to obtain footage of Gilbert’s 100th birthday celebration, the musician still as crusty as ever. Advised not to forget to smile at the women in the audience, Gilbert retorted, “How can you smile with a horn in your mouth?”
It was another old-timer that became the genesis for Chaikin’s film. Eight years ago, a friend told her about 90-year-old Jerrie Thill, an all-girl big band drummer from the ’40s, and her search began in earnest. One by one, these musical wunderkinds from yesteryear come alive again — Clora Bryant, Billie Rogers, Helen Jones Woods, Carline Ray — brimming over with stories in interview after interview. “In 1930 alone, there were 800 working women musicians,” Chaikin emphasized.
What was the biggest hurdle after the fundraising? According to Chaikin, it was “finding any kind of footage on these women. Many women didn’t have anything. It was a big hunt.” A remarkably clever use is made of many of the collected snapshots by creating a period photo paste-up book — several of her older subjects spring to life from this virtual album to tell their tales.
Her biggest backer was the renowned Playboy publisher, Hugh Hefner. “But even he didn’t know of these women,” she admitted. “He knew about Ina Ray Hutton and her band, of course, but most of the rest were quite a surprise.” Chaikin’s journey took her far afield — Germany, France and Sweden for starters — to get irreplaceable footage of the key players. Watching Hutton literally kick up a storm while conducting her Melodears will leave even the most seasoned filmgoer agog. A brief segment with sax player Vi Redd, considered by many of her contemporaries to be the female Charlie Parker of her day, gives us a tightly coiled intensity of playing that has to be seen to be believed. “She wasn’t a female anything,” jazz historian Billy Taylor professes. “It must have been frustrating that she couldn’t make the same contribution that her male counterparts were doing at the time.”
Old-time greats form the ’30s and ’40s like saxophonist Roz Cron and pianist Marian McPartland, with humor, grace, and rarely a tinge of bitterness, recount their tales. And what tales they are! Cron, still sporting a twinkle in the eye and a devilish grin, recounts how her father, knowing her interest in the saxophone, took her to a vaudeville act featuring Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. This duo played sax while roller skating and Cron never forgot it. But it didn’t deter her from following her own dream, even if it meant giving up her skirt and sweater and little black tie. At the Oriental Theatre in Chicago, the girls were forced to wear these “god-awful pink things with flounces, flares and ruffles.” Saddle shoes were another no-no in their dress code. “We couldn’t wear them,” admits drummer Viola Smith. “If we did, we must be gay.” They were, after all, if not Siamese twins, novelties to be gawked at.
If bandleader Ada Leonard wasn’t the spitfire of syncopation that Ina Ray Hutton was reputed to be, her magnetic good looks and figure made her orchestra a real crowd-pleaser. According to Cron, when the curtain went up one night, the audience went crazy. Only later did she find out that Leonard had a reputation as a strip-tease artist.
One of the true breakthroughs for trumpeter Clora Bryant was the formation of a mixed race band in Texas, the Prairie View Coeds. Within a short time, Mexican, Indian and Asian girls began to join their African-American counterparts and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were born, taking their brand of jazz on the road. If fame was hot on their heels, so were the police. Pulling one-nighters in the segregated South, filling stations were often off–limits, with the attendants meeting their bus with a loaded gun. More often than not, the women slept on the bus.
The integrated “Sweethearts” were playing a dangerous game, especially in a part of the country where even the theatres and dance halls were segregated. Cron, itching to get back on the road, had happily joined the group at their invitation. Prominent in the front row of the bandstand, there was no way to conceal her white pallor, so she tried different face powders. “For the most part,” she confessed, “I just turned orange.” Thankfully, outsmarting the local authorities wasn’t that impossible. Instead of picking out Cron, they zeroed in on a mulatto band member instead.
Chaikin serves up a generous dose of WWII nostalgia in her footage, with a predictable Pearl Harbor “Day of Infamy” sound bite by President Roosevelt included for good measure. But there’s no question the war played an important role in the careers of these women. Billie Rogers was playing in Culver City when Woody Herman’s search uncovered her and Marian McPartland met her musician husband Jimmy on a USO tour. She recalled going over on a Liberty ship and returning on a Victory vessel with seven of the original band members left after a stint of 15 years. By war’s end, a grim reality set in for our working girls. Centenarian Peggy Gilbert recalled her band didn’t even get a two-week notice. It was time to “go back to the kitchen.”
By the ’50s, jazz was firmly entrenched in the culture and Chaikin’s teasing images, such as the Big Apple’s 52nd Street landscape of hotspots and Clora Bryant blowing her trumpet on the Ed Sullivan Show with a male backup of dancers keeps the focus tight on the time period. McPartland is seen playing the keys as if she invented them, proving herself time and time again. She constantly heard the refrain, “You play well for a girl.” Her retort says it all. “I knew a lot of men who played like girls.” McPartland recalled the talents of Louis Armstrong’s wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong, whose songwriting talents may not be familiar to everyone. One of her biggest hits was “Just for a Thrill.” Recorded by greats like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, it became a legendary standard.
There were others who didn’t fare as well, or disappeared. Mary Lou Williams was an enormous talent who walked out of a Paris nightclub one night and for three years no one knew where she went. Eventually, she did thankfully reemerge where some did not. McPartland remembered Mary Osborne as one of the greatest guitar players of all time, who gave up a TV show in New York. “She moved to Bakersfield of all things because her husband got a job there and she looked after her two kids, never achieving the acclaim she should have.”
Chaikin also devotes a generous portion of her interviews to the women who have followed in the footsteps of their foremothers. She admitted that many were surprised when they saw the film. “You know, like all young people,” she said, “you always think like you’re inventing the world. A lot of them realized after seeing it, they were standing on the shoulders of some pretty big giants.”
For these younger generations, self-confidence is the byword. Carol Comer and Diane Gregg, who organized the first Women’s Jazz Festival in 1977, have seen its success burgeon ever since. One of their most exciting moments in a lifetime was bringing trombonist Melba Liston, “who could melt the steel with her playing” out of retirement as a teacher in the West Indies. All of this exploding energy culminated when Maiden Voyage’s band leader Ann Patterson invited the surviving members of the International Sweethearts Orchestra to come to her 1980 live jam session tribute in Kansas City.
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