By Don Heckman
“She plays good for a girl.” Or, somewhat more pejoratively, “She plays good for a chick.” Both phrases have been heard repeatedly, in varying forms, since the early days of jazz. Over the many decades in which talented female instrumentalists (playing everything from horns to drums to keys) have been trying, often with little success, to break through the brass ceiling of jazz.
And now, film director Judy Chaikin has produced a documentary film, appropriately titled The Girls in the Band, that brilliantly surveys an aspect of jazz that has generally remained below the surface. It’s a story that stretches from the ’20s into the present. A story of sexism, racism, diminished opportunities that have largely kept female jazz instrumentalists away from many of the prime performing opportunities, from big bands to small groups, from the benefits of studio gigs and the most challenging creative situations, despite the high quality of their skills.
On Tuesday night Chaikin presented a screening of her documentary before a large, enthusiastic audience at a Muse/Ique event at the Avon Company warehouse in Pasadena. To further contextualize the message of the film, the evening opened with a set by a group of young female players, and closed with a performance by saxophonist Ann Patterson’s Maiden Voyage, a small group version of the big, all-female jazz band Patterson has been leading for years.
The documentary is thorough, informative and entertaining, as well. Film clips reaching back to the ’20s offer extraordinary images of what it was like for female musicians eager to have the same professional opportunities as their male counterparts. Chaikin’s description on the film’s website of what the women artists endured is right on target:
“They wiggled, they jiggled, they wore low cut gowns and short shorts, they kowtowed to the club owners and smiled at the customers…and they did it all, just to play the music they loved.”
The same story is present in a series of insightful interviews with female players reaching from the ’20s to the present. Among them: Melba Liston, Roz Cron and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Clora Bryant, Cindy Blackman, Marian McPartland. Each had a fascinating reminiscence to offer, providing compelling slants on a unique era in American musical history.
No wonder New York Times critic Jeannette Catsoulis had high praise for The Girls in the Band: “Everything a worthwhile documentary should be, and then some: engaging, informative, thorough and brimming with delightful characters.”
The Girls in the Band can currently be seen at a number of theaters over the next few weeks. The present schedule includes screenings at:
– Nov. 15 & 17 @ The Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, OH.
– Nov.15 – 21 @ Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, CA.
– Nov. 16 & 17 @ Laemmle’s Claremont 5 in Claremont, CA.
– Nov. 23 & 24 @ Laemmle’s Monica 4 in Santa Monica, CA.
– Nov. 25 @ Laemmle’s Musica Hall 3 in Beverly Hills, CA.
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Photo of the Ann Patterson ensemble by Faith Frenz.