Of the 57 notable jazz musicians in the famous 1958 photo “A Great Day in Harlem,” only two women are included: Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland.
Yet there were many female instrumentalists, all-female bands, composers and orchestrators during America’s great jazz age, even though history and the music industry have mostly remembered vocalists (Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Nina Simone, etc.).
“Girls in the Band” — a rousing, insightful and deeply moving documentary directed by Judy Chaikin — finally gives the unsung women their due attention.
Opening today, the film features dazzling footage of dozens of female musicians who played with Tommy Dorsey, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman and others.
With so few women in the history books, it wasn’t easy to track down the people who appear in the movie.
“It was a detective hunt,” Chaikin says. “It took about five years just to find everyone. But one person told us about another and another. It was a trail we followed.”
The film is packed with characters, Bryant among the most prominent. Highlights include reminisces from saxophonist Roz Cron, trumpeter Billie Rogers and the late, great British pianist McPartland.
Bandleader Peggy Gilbert, remembering how women often were told “Don’t forget to smile,” asks, “How could you smile with a horn in your mouth?” The comment reflects the era when female musicians were considered novelties, and tradition was to stand there, look cute, wear a pretty dress and smile.
At the same time, the women in the movie reminisce about swooning for soldiers, one-night stands and their male peers, many of whom employed them, acted as mentors and were collaborators. Herman and Gillespie were known for embracing female colleagues.
Chaikin brings the film to the present day, including interviews with contemporary artists Esperanza Spalding, Maria Schneider, Terri Lyne Carrington, Patrice Rushen and Nedra Wheeler, to name a few.
“I didn’t want jazz to end up in a dusty archive again,” says Chaikin. “I wanted it to come into the living.”
IF YOU GO
Girls in the Band
Starring Roz Cron, Melba Liston, Marian McPartland, Clora Bryant
Directed by Judy Chaikin
Running time 1 hour, 27 minutes
Note: The 7 p.m. Friday screening at the Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness Ave., S.F., will be followed by a Q&A with filmmakers Judy Chaikin and Nancy Kissock and musicians Rebeca Mauleon, Linda Tillery, Mary Fettig and Angela Wellman.