THE GIRLS IN THE BAND

Posted on May 9, 2013

THE GIRLS IN THE BAND

TRT

Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in New York last month was an eye-opening experience, not only because of the music but also because of the personnel on stage. On the first night, it was bereft of any women, apart from a lone backing vocalist in Doyle Bramhall’s set.

Even someone who is not a feminist (like Tony Abbott) might find this extraordinary, I thought, as I started to compile a list of women who could have shared the stage with Clapton. There were plenty of women who would have held their own as lead guitarist, let alone those who could have played other instruments. Things improved slightly for the second night’s show: bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and singer Beth Hart starred in Jeff Beck’s band; though Susan Tedeschi appeared as a backing vocalist for Los Lobos (thank goodness they at least invited her but she didn’t get to play alongside Derek Trucks!).

Just six months earlier I had been at a benefit concert in Austin, Texas, for singer Lavelle White when the house band during one part of the evening had been made up entirely of women, including Marcia Ball on keyboards. (I am sure Eric will try harder next year!) In rock, blues, folk and country there is no reason why the gender balance has to be skewed. Jazz is a different matter.

The Girls In The Band addresses the issue of the role of ‘women in jazz,’ a phrase that usually elicits images of singers. It has been labelled as a ‘hidden history,’ which is not an inaccurate claim at all. As director Judy Chaikin’s award winning film notes, since the genre’s early days women have been involved as professional instrumentalists, composers, arrangers and conductors.

The legendary ‘Great Day In Harlem’ group photo from August 1958 propels the film, as it is shown to feature so many major American jazz artist of the time – from Monk to Mingus, Count Basie to Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins to Dizzy Gillespie. The only two women in the photo are piano greats Mary Lou Williams (who at least enjoyed a resurgence in the ‘70s) and Marian McPartland. ‘Who are they?’ asks the narrator. Then the search begins.

Sax player Roz Cron leads a group of players from the ‘30s and ‘40s, who tell their stories – often of struggle and sexism. While they might have been barred from male bands some of the women formed their own groups, including the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Unfortunately, however, some women tired of the struggle and gave up their recording and gigging careers entirely.

Maria Schneider recalls that she was asked ‘What’s it like to be a woman composer?’ and replied, ‘What’s it like to be a male journalist.’ Other interviewees who have even more compelling stories to tell include drummer Viola Smith, saxophonists Roz Cron and Peggy Gilbert and trumpeter Billie Rogers, (who does acknowledge Woody Herman’s more welcoming attitude).

‘In retrospect, all the things I’ve done to get anywhere in music, very little of it has had anything to do with being a woman,” says trumpetist Ingrid Jensen. The only thing that I can honestly say has gotten me from Point A to Point B is being in love with music.”

The Girls In The Band traces the history of woman in jazz from its inception, with an emphasis on the ‘50s and ‘60s, through to the modern era and offers a valuable lesson in jazz history (which might now be rewritten). It should be compulsory viewing for all music fans. It is available on import and, hopefully, will be shown at some of our film festivals later this year.

About Brian Wise