‘The Girls in the Band’: a heartening look at ladies of jazz
A three-star review of the jazz documentary “The Girls in the Band,” a superbly directed look at the role of women in that musical movement.
Seattle Times jazz critic
‘The Girls in the Band,’ a documentary directed by Judy Chaikin. 87 minutes. Not rated; for general audiences. Sundance Cinemas.
A quintet from the MoodSwings Jazz Band will perform at 6:45 p.m. Friday, Feb. 14, in the Sundance lobby.
On the heels of feminism’s second wave, the ’80s saw a florescence of books and TV shows about — and tributes to — women in jazz, who had long been neglected, ignored or forgotten. Now we have Judy Chaikin’s celebratory, superbly directed and edited documentary film on the same subject.
The major strength of “The Girls in the Band” is its abundant, crisp footage of women playing at the highest level, from pianist Lil Armstrong (Louis’ wife) to contemporary reed player Anat Cohen. With music like this, there’s no need — as there was 50 years ago — to defend female jazzers.
The music speaks for itself, whether it’s trumpet player Billie Rogers (hired by Woody Herman) blowing up a storm on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Patrice Rushen (whom Quincy Jones counseled, “you’re going to have to be very, very good”) wailing on electric piano, or Portland’s Esperanza Spalding doubling down on bass and vocals.
How heartening that as the film moves on speed dial through history, from the bad old days when women were flat-out unwelcome, it arrives at a place where women are saying gender isn’t a hurdle anymore (never mind that not all would agree).
The film is also candid about what, in part, held women back, explaining that men, particularly in the big-band era, simply did not want a woman around when they were telling dirty, often misogynist jokes and/or cheating on their wives.
Some worthy players are omitted — in particular, trumpeter Barbara Donald and pianist Patti Bown (who is actually in the background of a shot about trombonist Melba Liston, but goes unmentioned) — but a more important weakness is that it doesn’t explain why anyone who doesn’t already love jazz and support its women should care, which will probably doom this doc to the jazz festival circuit.
That’s too bad, because it has a smart shape, starting with the famous 1958 “A Great Day in Harlem” photo, which featured only three women, and ending with a restaging of that same photo in 2008 — using all women and three men.
I happen to have been at the shoot, and it was a moving moment, especially when everyone cheered for the late grande dame of jazz, Marian McPartland, as she got out of her town car.
If there was ever a moment when the cliché, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” was appropriate, that was it.
Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or firstname.lastname@example.org