‘The Girls in the Band’

Casey St. Charnez - December 20, 2013

"It’s hard to believe, but the absorbing and eye-opening The Girls in the Band—now playing at The Screen--is not on the 15–title short list..."

It’s hard to believe, but the absorbing and eye-opening The Girls in the Band—now playing at The Screen--is not on the 15–title short list in the semi-finals that lead to the Best Documentary Feature Oscar come March 2nd.

This untold story of popular music’s female musicians, from the 1920s to the present, is all–encompassing. It opens with that famous 1958 Esquire photo of 57 great jazz musicians, recorded in the film A Great Day In Harlem (1994). Look closely and notice there only a few women. By the end of The Girls in the Band, you’ll sure know who they are, among many others, and what their hard-won legacy has wrought.

"A Great Day in Harlem," 1958 Art Kane

Director Judy Chaikin’s fascinating history lesson starts with the antique male perception that women were physically too weak to play with the big boys. Indeed, when one pictures the big bands, swing bands, jazz bands, they’re almost always entirely men, except for the occasional female harpist, pianist, or violinist, considered the only possible feminine instruments. Women players were novelties in that era: “People thought it was cute,” a granny reminisces.

Thus the rise of the all-girl band, epitomized by Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears (Phil Spitalny and His All-Girl Orchestra Featuring Evelyn and Her Magic Violin doesn’t count). Some of the best players came from Harlem, and when multiracial ensembles like The International Sweethearts of Rhythm toured the Jim Crow South, it meant taking their lives in their hands, just to be allowed to perform. Dealing with sexism and racism came with the job: “If you didn’t sleep on the bus, you didn’t have a place to sleep.”

The girl band flourished during WW2, when the absence of men boosted female fortunes. Postwar, though, it was back to the kitchen. The advent of rock and roll in the 50s was an additional blow, leading to the dying out of those who could not adapt, downsize, or reinvent. Women musicians remained dormant until  the emergence of jazz groups later that same decade, and the anointing of Manhattan’s 52nd Street as their home base. Woody Herman was a major help in getting the femmes back in the spotlight.

Finally, there came the Women’s Jazz Fest in Kansas City in 1977, seen historically as the long-awaited turning point in public and professional assessment of the so-called distaff performers. Later, in the 80s, when giants like Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones took note, so to speak, the door opened permanently.

The Girls in the Band offers a panoply of frank and funny interviews with the still living, and is packed with vintage film clips of the departed, who now, because of this movie, are no longer forgotten. From “The Female Gene Krupa” to “The Gal With the Horn,” they all have their say at last.

Agreeably, the end-credits reveal all this to have been executive-produced by none other than Hugh M. Hefner, with funding from Herb Alpert and Lou Adler. To which I say, well done, gents, and thanks for this tip of your hats to the ladies.

The Girls in the Band will stay at The Screen, on the SFUAD campus, at least through Thursday December 26th. For more info on times and prices, go to www.thescreensf.com.

For more on the movie go to www.thegirlsintheband.com. You can watch the trailer there, too.