Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Girls in the Band - by Donna Lytle

The Girls in the Band
Introduction by:  Donna Lytle
(Musician, Educator, Archivist & Transportation Coordinator at TD Vancouver Int'l Jazz Festival) 
Presented by Donna at VIFF (VanCity Theatre)– Monday, June 18, 2012

Don't miss this film at VIIF at 7pm on Monday night! (editor kp)

If you have ever wondered why more women weren’t playing jazz, the answer is, “they were!”   And many of us didn’t know it. 

The film you are about to see, The Girls in the Band, is a delightful awakening to a history of American female jazz musicians, with plenty of hot licks to astound.  Judy Chaiken, the film’s director, exposes a whole culture of female players and female bands, particularly during the world war.  Get ready for some great stories as she rousts these amazing old gals for interviews.

How about playing saxophone as longevity medicine?  Peggy Gilbert is 96 when this film was shot, telling stories about playing with Lil Armstrong (wife of Louis) and musing about why it was he got all the fame. (and maybe she let him!)  In 1974, at 69 years old, Peggy created her last great all-girl band, "The Dixie Belles". In 1985 the band recorded the album "Peggy Gilbert & The Dixie Belles," which is available on CD . Peggy Gilbert lived until the age of 102 .

Technique is never an issue when you hear these women play. Melba Liston knocks your sox off and I’ll bet there was not a male player could match those trombone chops anywhere, and who could do it wearing a pair of 3 inch high heels!  Melba played in the Dizzy Gillespie band during the 40’s and again in the 50’s writing a lot of the bands arrangements.  In 1958 Melba recorded her only album as leader, Melba and Her Bones, with an all-star trombone lineup of Slide Hampton, Jimmy Cleveland, Bennie Green, Frank Rehak, Al Grey and Benny Powell. Four of the 12 pieces are her compositions. The CD was reissued in 2006.

Melba Liston - Pow (1958)

One thing comes up over and over during the interviews. Music at home nurtured these players.  Being from musical families and communities opened up the possibilities for play no matter the gender. You cannot ignore the way gender has been perceived in jazz, but this is social history, and there’s plenty to remember from this film. The Jim Crow era in the southern states was a shameful time and these early touring female bands remember it well as they talk about the hardships of being on the road - the issues of race compounded with gender issues. Great all female touring bands like the International Sweethearts of Rhythm are remembered and honoured by jazz historians. In 1978 the inaugural Kansas City Womens Jazz Festival was held, and brought together many of these veteran players with their modern-day counterparts.

International Sweethearts of Rhythm - Jump Children (circa early 40's)

As the film brings us into the present, we get a welcome sense of society maturing and a contemporary landscape in which special festivals and organizations geared toward women in jazz is not really necessary. So much we didn’t know. But to keep it current, the Jazz Festival is prepared to help us vet our curiosity and excitement. I’d like to mention a few of the great players, and great bands who will be here in Vancouver in the next few weeks. 

At the Ironworks over the next couple of weeks you must not miss Hélène Labarrière (info), bassist from France, Angelika Neiscier (info), sax player from Germany and of course the Dutch/Canadian group lead by Ig Henneman (info), including well known Canadian women Lori Freedman and Marilyn Lerner.

Opening week-end of the festival and FREE at Performance Works you can hear Vancouver cellist PeggyLee with pianist Robin Holcomb on Saturday afternoon.

And closing week-end of the festival at the Roundhouse watch out for Cat Toren’s band and Lan Tung’s Proliferation with Xu Fengxia.

Please circle your programs now - we shouldn’t forget to pay attention to what is happening in the here and now.

And please, enjoy this lovely film.

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