Tag Archives: Dolly Jones

IN A RIGHTEOUS GROOVE: “THE GIRLS IN THE BAND”

I did not get to see the film THE GIRLS IN THE BAND when it had a New York screening in April 2013, but thanks to the Beloved, we saw it last night on the other coast.  It is a superb film, with much to say to everyone: you don’t have to be a jazz scholar or a student of women’s history to be pleased by the music, enlightened and heartened by the courageous and insightful women portrayed in the film, and appalled by the world in which they struggled for equality and visibility.

The music known as jazz — however you choose to define it — has cherished its reputation as free-wheeling, radical in its approach to established texts.  It  has presented itself as music played by courageous innovators for people who were willing to go beyond what was immediately accessible, aimed at the widest audience.  Much of that remains true. So it is an unpleasant irony that some people associated with jazz — including the musicians themselves — have excluded and derided artists who didn’t fit their narrow criteria for acceptance. The wrong color? Ethnicity? Sexual preference? Gender? We have made some progress in believing that you need not be an African-American from New Orleans to be “authentic,” but jazz has long been the self-declared playground of men.

Women have been accepted on the bandstand for more than the last century — as singers whose job was to sound pretty and look prettier.

But women instrumentalists and improvisers have only recently begun to gain anything but a grudging acceptance from their male peers. Lovie Austin, Dolly Jones, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Mary Osborne, Marjorie Hyams, Melba Liston, and Vi Redd come to mind as twentieth-century pioneers, facing discrimination and rejection. “Can she play?” should have been the only question, but it often was never asked. And “all-women” bands, no matter how compelling their music, were often seen as freakish, the improvising equivalent of Dr. Johnson’s lady preacher. Sherrie Maricle and others might tell us that the situation is improving . . . but some barriers still remain.

THE GIRLS IN THE BAND, directed by Judy Chaikin and produced by Nancy Kissock, is a concise yet powerful documentary — eighty minutes of music, reportage, and vivid film memoir taken from over three hundred hours of material. It isn’t a history as such, tied to chronology, nor is it pure polemic. It is human and humane: we hear the stories of women who, early on, were intoxicated by the music and the desire to create it, then made their way into public performance — overcoming the obstacles put in their way by everyone who had a stake in keeping things the way they were: male musicians, critics, record producers, clubowners, concert promoters, and more.

Here’s the trailer, which can convey the film’s exuberance better than I can hope to:

and a second one, also worth watching:

I have to say that I am a very reluctant movie-goer. I get restless quickly; I am impatient with films that are too simple or too elusive; when a film is concerned with a subject I know well, the slightest error turns me chilly.  I thoroughly admired and enjoyed THE GIRLS IN THE BAND and encourage JAZZ LIVES readers to seek it out. The pioneering women, candid and self-aware yet unassuming, telling their stories, will stick with you long after the final credits have rolled.

The Beloved was appalled at the women’s history she had not known and entranced by the sound of Melba Liston’s trombone on a ballad. I made a commitment of my own: I bought a THE GIRLS IN THE BAND t-shirt and will add it to my fashion repertoire. Here is the film’s Facebook page.

And in the discussion that ensued, this point was made — I offer it in my own way. When we read in the popular press that a restaurant chain does not serve or employ people of a certain ethnicity or sexual orientation or religious belief, we are outraged and we do not eat there anymore.  “There are laws against such things,” we say proudly.

But when there is evidence of gender bigotry in jazz, many of us do not even see it, nor do we protest. I would not insist that a band in a club be comprised as if by census, but we should notice when the faculty at jazz studies programs is uniformly male. When a jazz camp has no women as instructors, is it because there are no competent women players? Where are the women in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra?  The list is longer than I could write here.

The late Carline Ray, a shining light of the film, reminds us that if we heard a man or a woman playing from behind a curtain, we could not correctly identify the player’s gender.  Where are the “blind auditions” now common practice in symphony orchestras?

One of the ways to learn more about this chapter of history — not just women’s history — is to see THE GIRLS IN THE BAND and to encourage others to do so.  And, just incidentally, you will have witnessed a real accomplishment in film-making.

May your happiness increase!

GETTING RESPECT ON THE BANDSTAND: “THE GIRLS IN THE BAND”

The music known as jazz — however you choose to define it — has cherished its reputation as free-wheeling, radical in its approach to established texts, a music for those who knew there were worlds of experience beyond the canon.  And much of that remains true.  So it is an unpleasant irony that some people associated with jazz have been less than open in their acceptance of artists who didn’t fit their narrow criteria for acceptance.  The wrong color?  Ethnicity?  Sexual preference?  Gender?

Women have been accepted on the bandstand for more than the last century — as singers.  Even then, they were treated with condescension, mockery, derision.  “Do you know the one about the chick singer who taps at your door . . . ?”   But even the most rigidly patriarchal musicians and club owners have accepted singers as necessary parts of the Show.

But women instrumentalists and improvisers have only recently begun to gain anything but a grudging acceptance — and by that I mean acceptance from their male peers.  Lovie Austin, Dolly Jones, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Mary Osborne, Marjorie Hyams, Melba Liston, and Vi Redd come to mind as twentieth-century pioneers, facing discrimination, subtle and overt, that should have never happened.  “Can she play?” should have been the only question, but it often was never asked.  And “all-women” bands, no matter how compelling their music, were — at best — regarded as freakish, the improvising equivalent of Dr. Johnson’s lady preacher.  Sherrie Maricle and others might tell us that the situation is improving . . . but how slowly?

Given all this, I have been looking forward to the new documentary, THE GIRLS IN THE BAND, for some time. Here is the film’s website, Facebook page, and here’s the trailer:

The film will be screening for one week, starting May 10, at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center, New York City.  Tickets can be purchased here.

GITB-Harlem_5Oct10

For information on this beautiful photograph — an updating and homage to Art Kane’s portrait, fifty years earlier, click here.

I hope to see you at the screening!

May your happiness increase.

LILLIE DELK CHRISTIAN, CONTINUED

Here are Miss Christian’s recorded appearances (in brief), all in Chicago.

With Johnny St. Cyr (bj), c. March 5, 1926: SWEET MAN / SWEET GEORGIA BROWN

Add Jimmie Noone (cl), June 15, 1926: LONESOME AND SORRY / BABY O’MINE

With Albert Wynn’s Gut Bucket Five : Dolly Jones (cnt) Albert Wynn (tb) Barney Bigard (sop,ts) Jimmy Flowers (p) Rip Bassett (bj), June 25, 1926, WHEN

With Richard M. Jones’ Jazz Wizards : Artie Starks (cl) Richard M. Jones (p) Johnny St. Cyr (bj), May 6, 1927: IT ALL DEPENDS ON YOU / AIN’T SHE SWEET (possibly two takes)

With Noone, St. Cyr (g), December 12, 1927, MY BLUE HEAVEN / MISS ANNABELLE LEE

With Louis Armstrong And His Hot Four: Louis Armstrong (cnt,vcl) Jimmie Noone (cl) Earl Hines (p) Mancy Carr (g), June 26, 1928: YOU’RE A REAL SWEETHEART / TOO BUSY / WAS IT A DREAM? / LAST NIGHT I DREAMED YOU KISSED ME.  Same personnel, December 11. 1928: I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE / BABY.  Same, December 12, 1928: SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE / I MUST HAVE THAT MAN.

From the fine writer and researcher Mark Miller, who searched the pages of the Chicago Defender and came up with a 1964 (!) mention of “LIL CHRISTIAN” and three photographs.  But I’ll let Mark speak for himself:

The only variation of the three names that yields results (40 hits) is Lil Christian, a singer who continued to be active into the mid-1960s, and is identified in one 1964 item (see immediately below) as having recorded for OKeh. Must be her, right? Strangely, the items begin in the 1930s; nothing from the 20s.  Attached, in addition to that clipping, are three photos that appeared over the years in the Defender — for comparison with the one that you have. Her high cheek bones are the clue.   So, where to from here? The Defender items are mostly references to engagements in Chicago and on the west coast. I’ve not been comprehensive yet in checking everything, but it doesn’t look as though here’s much in terms of background. But, it’s a start.

The first photograph:

Another:

And finally:

And a more impressionistic meditation on Miss Christian is provided in the notes to a Document CD collecting many of her recordings — a small overview by Fred “Virgil” Turgis, made available to us by jazz scholar Randy Stehle:

Lillie Delk Christian is more interesting vocally and her material is far superior (I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Ain’t She Sweet, I Must Have That Man). That’s probably explains why the band gives a better performance. Noone (clarinet) and St Cyr (guitar) enlivens the December 12th session featuring “My Blue Heaven” and “Miss Annabelle Lee” with gutsy accompaniment and fine solos. Armstrong appears six months later for the June 1928 session. This session features the best, “Too Busy” an uptempo number with Armstrong scatting, and the worst of Christian, “Was It A Dream” a waltz that doesn’t really give the Hot Four the possibility to express themselves.

The last recordings lack a bit of swing in the vocal but is saved by a good rendition of “I Must Have That Man”.

This selection is a nice addition to anyone who’s interested in Satchmo’s early years and work as a back up band. And despite some flaws and, let’s say it, the fact she isn’t a great vocalist, Lillie Delk Christian’s sides have a certain charm and are appealing enough for a curious listener.

And for anyone who hasn’t seen it, here is invaluable first-hand information relayed to us by Hal Smith:

I have a copy of an interview with St. Cyr where he said that Lillie Delk was his LANDLADY. He also said that she used to sing just to entertain the boarders.

Once when St. Cyr was offered a recording session and was asked to bring a vocalist, he asked Ms. Christian to join him. The A&R man liked her voice and hired her to do a second session. (First one was LDC, Jimmie Noone and St Cyr on banjo. On the second, St. Cyr played guitar. The Quartet sides were recorded later).

St. Cyr said that Lillie’s husband, Charlie, was a gambler and was often away from home. Apparently, he had little use for the boarders who asked LDC to sing, and never even offered a tip. When he found out that St. Cyr had gotten two paid record dates for her, he said, “You’re the only one who has ever done ANYTHING for Lil!” Obviously the other boarders had a “handful of ‘gimme’ and a mouthful of ‘much obliged’.”

All of this adds much evidence to our portrait of Miss Christian, but it also adds to the mystery and makes the gaps in her story so much larger.  It would have made some sense to assume that she was local talent — a strong-voiced Chicago singer, utilized by OKeh Records for two years in Chicago.  She could read lyrics, had a powerful delivery — qualities that would endear to the influential music publishers, who saw vocal recordings as ways to sell sheet music.  And it would also make some logical sense that her career would come to a halt in 1929, at least as far as recordings were concerned.  Louis and his friends went off to New York; the Great Depression hit with the stock market crash, which nearly stopped record sales.  It would be a pleasant invention to assume that Miss Christian went back to collecting rents and making sure the hallways were tidy.  But the Defender has her singing through the Thirties, and she is back — a known quantity — in 1964.  In the ideal world, one of my readers would have gone to that performance and asked her a few questions about the good old days.

A little knowledge might indeed be a dangerous thing!  Thanks to all the generous readers (Mark, Hal, Randy, and Sally Fee) who have added both information and intrigue!

May your happiness increase.