Imagine someone making a documentary about "men in jazz" or "men in art." The absurdity of the idea is obvious: There's too much to cram into a focused narrative. Where to start?
But "The Girls in the Band," a documentary film about pioneering female jazz musicians, tells a story that many music fans don't know. The film opens at Real Art Ways in Hartford on Feb. 14, and the opening-night screening will be followed by a performance of the Mary DiPaolo Piano Trio.
That there were seemingly so few female jazz musicians drives home the stifling sexism in the world of jazz and the field of music in general, but also in America as a whole. Jazz, with its improvisation and group-playing, may often serve as a convenient metaphor for the values of democracy, equality and freedom, but that doesn't mean that jazz men weren't as blinkered by gender prejudice as anyone else at the time. Jazz, like rock, was often thought of as a realm of testosterone and male swagger.
As it happens, there have been many influential female jazz musicians — band leaders, soloists and composers, such names as Mary Lou Williams, Lil Armstrong, Marian McPartland, Hazel Scott and Melba Liston. "The Girls in the Band" begins by chronicling the emergence of all-female big bands in the '30s and '40s, groups such as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, which were largely billed as novelty acts but which served as magnets for talented female players who couldn't find fulfilling work in male-dominated bands.
"There was just an unwritten law that they wouldn't hire any women," says trumpet player Clora Bryant about the difficulty of finding gigs.
Female musicians were coached to smile at women in the audience while they played. ("How do you smile with a horn in your mouth?" asks one woman.) And the female musicians had to wear silly frilly pink outfits, which many of them despised. Women were also forbidden from wearing saddle shoes, too, because they would be thought to be lesbians if they did, evidently.
"Females were not looked on with the same attitude," says International Sweethearts of Rhythm bassist Carline Ray. "The guys can have white hair and glasses and can weigh 300 pounds, but if they can play, great; the girls have to look like a bunch of film starlets."
In the same way that the famous "blindfold test" originated because some jazz musicians claimed they could tell the sound of white players from the sound of black players, these women simply wanted to be heard and judged without regard to their gender. Female musicians faced the widespread assumption that they couldn't play jazz with the fundamental exertion and agility required. But not everyone subscribed to such views.
"Some of the most powerful players that I have ever heard were women jazz players," says pianist and jazz educator Billy Taylor. "For anyone to say that they're not swinging as hard or have the same force in their playing — it's not true. It's simply not true."
The film touches on all of those individual players mentioned above. Filmmaker Judy Chaikin said via e-mail that the documentary probably would have included Betty O'Hara — an all-around valve player, who played trumpet, trombone, euphonium and other brass instruments, and who performed with Hartford symphony and other ensembles before moving to California in 1960 — but O'Hara died in 2009.
Any one of the major players or groups covered in this wide-ranging film would have made a satisfying subject for its own documentary, and so Chaikin was faced with the challenge of braiding together many stories of talented and underappreciated musicians, stories of women with astounding musical skill but also remarkable persistence and defiance in the face of sexism, all into one movie spanning nearly 90 years.
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were perhaps the most well known and highly regarded of all the all-female big bands from the swing era. (A long story on the group appeared in the 2012 music issue of the Oxford American magazine.) The band was originally formed by the music teacher at a school for orphans in Mississippi. The group later became a touring act led by Anna Mae Winburn, a bandleader from Omaha. They could play. And during World War II, a time when many positions formerly occupied by men were filled temporarily by women, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were in high demand, playing USO dates and entertaining servicemen at home and abroad.
That all ended after the war. Work dried up when male bands returned. As one female musician puts it, "a lot of women had to go back to the kitchen."
Many of the women in the film talk about growing up playing music without ever encountering other female role models as performers. "I never ever saw another girl do what I did," says one of the women. Young girls were encouraged to play violin, or piano or harp, but rarely a horn, or drums or standup bass.
Jazz was — and still is — mostly played by men. It was thought to be a macho affair that required force and speed and stamina. (At the same time, many of the greatest jazz horn players have likened soloing to singing, an area where women have long been understood to excel.) But, as with racial integration in jazz, there were forward-thinking male bandleaders who didn't discriminate against women. Woody Herman hired pioneering female trumpet player Billie Rogers, and trombonist Melba Liston toured with Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie's bands, among others. Billy Taylor comes off nicely, expressing his disappointment at male musicians he respected when they expressed sexist or dismissive attitudes toward female musicians Taylor had hired.
"The Girls in the Band" moves in wider and wider circles as the story progresses, attempting to cover how the male-dominated jazz world led such artists as Mary Lou Williams and Melba Liston to temporarily abandon performing, pointing from there to the stories of next-generation players like saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom or drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. It's a moving and inspiring story, but also a sad one, because it conveys the sense of injustice and lost opportunity for both players and listeners.
Contemporary jazz bassist, singer and composer Esperanza Spalding expresses an evolved and compassionate perspective when she sympathizes with the male musicians of the past who helped to perpetuate a sexist climate in the music business. Spalding says the men suffered from their own lack of exposure to or familiarity with what women could do — in many spheres of live — based on the prevailing attitudes of the time.
"[The male musicians] were limited in their ability to understand it," says Spalding. The generational shift and the sense of artistic confidence is remarkable, given how recently the gender barriers existed. "We kind of all realize this is not a man's game. If you really look at the facts, it's our game. We're creators. Women are creators."
"GIRLS IN THE BAND" opens at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., in Hartford on Feb. 14 at 7:30 p.m., and will be followed by a performance of the Mary DiPaolo Piano Trio. The documentary is shown daily through Feb. 19. Information: www.realartways.org and 860-232-1006.