Review: Jazz’s unsung ‘Girls in the Band’

The lively and entertaining documentary “The Girls in the Band” sheds long overdue light on the many unsung female jazz instrumentalists of the 1930s and 1940s. Director Judy Chaikin, who co-wrote the film with its deft editor, Edward Osei-Gyimah, infuses this fine portrait with grace, nostalgia and a well-calibrated dose of social commentary.

A close-up on Art Kane’s iconic 1958 photograph “A Great Day in Harlem,” which featured a cascade of top jazz artists — only three of whom were women (including pianists Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland) — kicks off Chaikin’s account of how a talented group of distaff musicians succeeded in a once-male-dominated, highly sexist business. (The movie is poignantly bookended by a 2008 shoot re-creating the Harlem photo, but populated mostly by women.)

A wonderfully frank and spirited array of now-elderly ladies — Roz Cron, Clora Bryant, Peggy Gilbert, Billie Rogers, Carline Ray, McPartland and others — discuss their glory days playing mainly in all-female groups during jazz and swing’s golden age. The racism endured by African American artists while touring in the Jim Crow South is also vitally recounted.

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A trove of archival footage and photos and vivid performance clips support these and other interviews, which also include such present-day female jazz musicians as Patrice Rushen, Terry Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding. Jazz great Herbie Hancock, late jazz spokesman Dr. Billy Taylor and cultural historian James Briggs Murray enjoyably comment as well.


Gary Goldstein


‘The Girls in the Band’

MPAA rating: None.

Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

Playing: At Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood.