Programmer’s Page: All that Female Jazz…

The sexual harassment controversies of the last few weeks reveal one aspect of the obvious discrimination women have faced here and around the world since the dawn of civilization. But independent net Cinemoi’s “The Girls in the Band” documentary, which premiered last week on Verizon FiOS and Frontier and remains available at www.cinemoi.tv, puts a keen spotlight on the little-known history of women in jazz. Documentarian Judy Chaikin shows us that women not only took great risks to overcome gender and race discrimination from audiences—but also from male jazz musicians who often saw them only as pretty singers or background pianists. It’s amazing to watch footage of Marian McPartland, perhaps the best jazz pianist of her time, bite her tongue as a reporter tells her that being a female jazz musician must be an advantage “because you’re so decorative.”

Women couldn’t play the big boy instruments: No trumpets. No saxophones or trombones. Certainly not the upright bass! Those instruments were for men because they required machismo. “Male musicians didn’t want to work with women,” McFarland says years later. “They had the idea that their playing was delicate or frilly and all of that ridiculous kind of stuff.” As a result of those misperceptions, women who wanted to play “male” instruments or contribute as songwriters and arrangers formed their own groups and toured across the country. Ever heard of “The International Sweethearts of Rhythm”? How about Melba Liston, a trombonist who was so in demand as a jazz arranger that greats like Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie depended on her talents? What else don’t you know? Watch Girls in the Band, and learn what you’ve been missing. – Michael Grebb

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