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!