A poignant look at the untold story of women in jazz

'The Girls in the Band'

Billie Rogers in Woody Herman┬┐s trumpet section from the documentary "The Girls in the Band." (One Step Productions / February 20, 2014)

The world of jazz never has been particularly hospitable to women, then or now, though matters have improved since the darkest days.

Even so, the female trumpeter or saxophonist who leads her own band to wide acclaim remains the exception. For the most part, women who reach the top levels in jazz tend to be singers, pianists or singer-pianists. Old stereotypes die hard.

Yet considering how women in jazz were treated through most of the 20th century, they have advanced quite a bit, as the moving documentary "The Girls in the Band" attests. Or perhaps it's more accurate to observe that it's society that has progressed, albeit begrudgingly. For women were essential contributors to the art form practically since its inception; they simply weren't acknowledged, celebrated or allowed to flourish fully.

"The Girls in the Band" takes a while to get around to Lil Hardin, Louis Armstrong's second wife, but she was integral to the revolutionary music he made in Chicago in the 1920s, widely acknowledged as laying much of the groundwork for the art of jazz improvisation. Only connoisseurs remember her today, but one can reasonably question whether Armstrong — to this day the face of the music around the world — would have reached the creative and commercial heights that he did, as soon as he did, without her.

And therein lies much of the joy of "The Girls in the Band," which spotlights major contributors such as Hardin and Marian McPartland and little-known instrumentalists who advanced the front lines of women in jazz, with scant reward. The abuse these women endured simply for wishing to play a music that ostensibly was all about liberation in the first place still is startling to hear from those who suffered it.

"The agent would come up to me and say: 'You can't use that girl. You've got to get somebody that looks better,'" swing bandleader Peggy Gilbert recalls, still smarting at the insult.

"The guys can have white hair and glasses and weigh 300 pounds, but if they can play, great," observes one of the veteran women musicians. "The girls they want to look like a bunch of young starlets."

Says another: "The things that they put on us were unbelievable." Such as flouncy pink dresses designed to present the wearers as frilly objects of desire rather than as the formidable artists they were.

In one particularly rich film clip, a male TV journalist asks a young McPartland if being a woman in jazz has been a handicap in her career. She answers the question in characteristically uncompromising fashion, to which the clueless journalist responds: "I think it's a great advantage, since you're so decorative."

As late as the 1970s, during a flowering of women's rights in America and beyond, the esteemed drummer-bandleader Sherrie Maricle recalls what she endured trying to sit in on New York jam sessions at the start of her career. "Take your shirt off — I'll let you sit in," she would be told. "Can you handle the tempo, honey?"

"And it would make me seethe in fury," she says, looking back on it. "Like inside I would feel like a volcano about to explode."

There's much more to "The Girls in the Band," however, than just a litany of injustices. To its great credit, the film illuminates a history of women in jazz that even some of the women interviewed in the film acknowledge they did not know while growing up. Why would they? Jazz culture did not spotlight these stories, a long line of great performances and significant compositions almost completely ignored.

Thus it's a feast to see rare film footage of women jazz giants, or at least those who might have been regarded as such in a better world. It's striking, for instance, to behold the virtuosity and charismatic manner of alto saxophonist Vi Redd, who might have been immortalized if she had been born into the other gender.

"A lot of people said that she was the female Charlie Parker," recalls pianist Billy Taylor in the film. "She wasn't the female anything. She was a very, very excellent player. She had her own identity that didn't get a chance to develop."

Ditto Melba Liston, the visionary trombonist-arranger who finally turned away from the world of performance to teach in Jamaica. Though she eventually returned to music-making, the world has yet to acknowledge the vastness of her contribution.

So was it all worth it? Did the indignities and frustrated dreams that these women experienced add up to anything?

"The Girls in the Band" argues passionately that it did, and to hear these women musicians — now in the twilight of their years — reminisce on their thrilling times on the road and on the bandstand is to realize that they did something more than make impressive music. In effect, they were championing equal rights for women well before that term had become everyday parlance.

Moreover, when the final sequences of the film show contemporary jazz women such as the brilliant clarinetist Anat Cohen, the groundbreaking composer-arranger Maria Schneider and the volcanic drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, we realize that these new generations would not have emerged without the earlier sacrifices.

Because "The Girls in the Band" allows the musicians themselves to tell the story, with a minimum of droning analysts, the narrative feels all the more persuasive and real. And the film's final extended sequence, which is too hauntingly beautiful to give away here, underscores the value of this tale and the elegance with which it is told.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

No MPAA rating

Running time: 1:21

Opens: Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center

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