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New documentary celebrates generations of jazz women

Girls in the Band
Girls in the Band

Jazz fans pride themselves on their passion for a music that enlightens as it entertains, a genre that in its history, cultural impact and rhythms represents the best of diversity with its simultaneous emphasis on individual creativity and collective cooperation.
For decades, however, that diversity cut across racial rather than gender lines. A new documentary, “The Girls in the Band,” examines an era when audiences and society as a whole frowned on the prospect of women playing jazz and celebrates those musicians who persevered. The film screens January 17-23 at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Here is a synopsis.

They wiggled, they jiggled, they wore low cut gowns and short shorts, they kowtowed to the club owners and smiled at the customers … and they did it all, just to play the music they loved. “The Girls in the Band” tells the poignant, untold stories of female jazz and big band instrumentalists and their fascinating, groundbreaking journeys from the late ‘30s to the present day. These incredibly talented women endured sexism, racism and diminished opportunities for decades, yet continued to persevere, inspire and elevate their talents in a field that seldom welcomed them. Today, a new breed of gifted young women is taking their rightful place in the world of jazz, which can no longer deny their talents.

“The Girls in the Band” is produced and directed by veteran documentarian Judy Chaikin. The inspiration for the film came in part from her childhood experiences.

It started with a phone call from a friend telling me that she’d met a woman who had been a big band musician in the ‘40s. As a kid, I spent my summers in Ocean Park and as you walked the magical pier at night you could hear the music drifting from the glamorous dance halls nearby. That started my great love for big band music and by the time I was in my 20s I had seen or heard probably every major band that ever played the West Coast.
Never once did I see a woman play an instrument in any of those big bands. True, there were a few all-female bands but to me they were mainly “novelty acts." Real, honest, female big band musicians? My curiosity was piqued and out of that came a desire to find out if there was anything worth exploring. Much to my surprise a lot of interesting information began to surface. There were many women musicians who had devoted their lives to jazz and swing band music. Not only in the past but all the way through the 20th century and up to the present day.
Armed with a dynamo executive producer, Mike Greene, and a couple of generous grants from Hugh Hefner and Herb Alpert, “The Girls in the Band” started taking shape. We hope that the great joy we all had in learning about these amazing women will be shared by the viewers and that the film will bring these artists the admiration and respect they so rightly deserve.
This film is my tribute to their courage and musical artistry, which has never been properly celebrated. It’s also an homage to my younger self who has never stopped loving jazz, music and the golden sound of a trumpet. Our greatest satisfaction will come if this film can inspire a new crop of young female jazz musicians to stand on the shoulders of those early pioneers and to reach for the stars.

The film has won strong reviews, such as this from The New York Times.

“The Girls in the Band” is everything a worthwhile documentary should be, and then some: engaging, informative, thorough and brimming with delightful characters. Shining a long-overdue spotlight on the shamefully forgotten women who flourished as jazz musicians at a time when men ruled the beat, Judy Chaikin’s beautifully assembled film gives voice to performers whose names are too often unknown even among their musical sisters of the present day.

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