One of the most positive benefits of the inauguration of the information highway in recent times, has been the Internet as a welcome equal opportunity domain. In other words, what age, color or gender you are online may no longer matter – or even be known – as much as what you have to say or contribute there.
But this mixed blessing can work both ways. Most notoriously, suspected 12 year olds mouthing off with crude or offensive opinionated attacks, while perhaps gleefully impersonating adults. Such cyberspace negatives aside, there really was no such outlet even dreamed about in the past, for women, people of color and elders of the tribe, no matter how talented, to surmount US society’s deeply entrenched prejudices against them.
And this predicament was unfortunately the case of scores of unsung, exquisitely gifted female jazz instrumentalists, like Rae Lee Jones, Clora Bryant, Melba Liston and Billie Rogers. Who along with many others endured exclusion, ridicule and musical exile from the jazz world. The buried history of those women and their art have now been masterfully resurrected in Judy Chaikin’s documentary, The Girls In The Band.
Alternately eloquent, solemn and laced with stinging wit, The Girls In The Band traces and spotlights their music from the 1930’s to the present time. And when the women were allowed to play jazz only if likewise willing to be on display as peculiar novelties or seductively clad sex objects. Or in the case of Daisy and Violet Hudson, accomplished young musicians who managed to get gigs because they just happened to have their backs conjoined together, while roller skating around the stage.
Painful memories come to light from many of these now elderly but no less creatively spirited women. Like being ordered to have long hair and smile on stage, but wondering how to smile with a trombone in your mouth. Or repeatedly told you’re not good enough, or pretty enough to perform.
Then there were the dreaded concerts back then in the Jim Crow South, and one musician shuddering to remember that she thought Jim Crow was a man they were going to meet. And a music critic blasting them in a newspaper, with the headline that they should ‘stick to their ironing.’ Or another insisting a female jazz musician has a great advantage over the men, because you’re ‘so decorative.’
But the women, like this documentary, triumph. And get to have the last word too. As when one of the musicians recalls being asked by a reporter, ‘what’s it like to be a female composer.’ And to which she replies, ‘what’s it like to be a male journalist.’
The Girls In The Band is opening at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center in New York City. More information is online at: http://www.thegirlsintheband.com, and filmlinc.com/about/the-elinor-bunin-munroe-film-center.