Film Review: The Girls in the Band

This film is an important step toward repairing broken links and resurrecting almost a century of music and the women who made it.

The phrase “the women of jazz” might conjure images of singers, but as the upbeat documentary The Girls in the Band amply demonstrates, from the get-go women have been deeply involved in all aspects of America’s great musical genre—as professional instrumentalists, composers, arrangers and conductors. Director Judy Chaikin’s bright elucidation of unexplored pop-culture history received the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2012 Palm Springs Film Festival and will be right in tune with arts-oriented small-screen programmers worldwide.

Chaikin bookends the film with an affectionate, and ultimately poignant, challenge to Art Kane’s famous 1958 photo A Great Day in Harlem, which brought together dozens of the leading jazz musicians of the day. Among them were only three women, not quite an accurate representation. But if jazz was an unconventional pursuit for men, it was even more so for women. In the early decades of big-band jazz and swing, female musicians were treated as novelties, often forced to wear ridiculous starlet getups and, most ludicrous, expected to smile, always smile, even while blowing a horn.

The archival footage and stills that Chaikin has assembled are fascinating, and attest to the vibrancy and depth of unsung musical talents. Especially engaging are her interviews with many of the women themselves—among them drummer Viola Smith, saxophonists Roz Cron and Peggy Gilbert, and trumpeter Billie Rogers, who acknowledges band leader Woody Herman’s role in opening doors to women.

The doc lends a fresh perspective to well-traveled chapters of history like the heyday of New York’s 52nd Street and the women’s movement of the 1970s. Having toured the States and Europe for the USO during World War II—one trumpeter has fond memories of an encounter with the Tuskegee Airmen—the women found that the war’s end wasn’t entirely good news. As one interviewee notes, it meant that “a lot of girls had to go back to the kitchen” to make room for male musicians returning from military service.

It’s disappointing when the film moves beyond these pioneers and their firsthand memories of Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears, the Fayettes and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. It’s all too easy to want more time with each of them, whether they’re recalling the dangers integrated bands faced in the Jim Crow South or mentioning a disappointing one-night stand with Tommy Dorsey.

But Chaikin is more interested in establishing a lineage of female jazz musicians, bringing her narrative up to date with contemporary artists such as Terri Lyne Carrington, Maria Schneider, Anat Cohen and Esperanza Spalding. However illuminating the chronology, The Girls in the Band loses its rhythm as it turns into a somewhat choppy and diffuse compendium.

Along the way, though, are extraordinary insights and performances. Two standouts, with their singular smoky tones, are saxophonist Vi Redd and trombonist/composer Melba Liston, one of Dizzy Gillespie’s preferred arrangers.

Like most of us, a number of the latter-day women of jazz knew nothing about such forebears until well into their careers; the film is an important step toward repairing the broken links and resurrecting almost a century of music and the women who made it.
The Hollywood Reporter