'The Girls in the Band' review: Great music for any gender

'The Girls in the Band'

'The Girls in the Band' (February 13, 2014)

*** (out of four)

A crash course on female musicians in jazz, “The Girls in the Band” packs in so many stories and performances that I wished it would slow down, so the music could settle and the anecdotes could breathe.

That said, a high quantity of revolutionary people and concerts is a good problem in a documentary about barrier-busting musicians. Director/co-writer Judy Chaikin speaks to many of these women, including members of late-’30s/early-’40s ensemble the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and their “trumpetiste” Clora Bryant. Countless snippets of archival footage include shameful examples of sexism like a letter to the editor that female musicians “should stick to their ironing” and a TV host introducing Chicago native Ina Ray Hutton as “that pretty little spitfire of syncopation.” Anyone familiar with mid-20th century America will be unsurprised but sickened by such misogynistic behavior, as well as by tales of racism encountered while touring in Southern states.

Despite its content pile-up, “The Girls in the Band” undeniably achieves its primary purpose of making viewers walk out of the theater knowing a lot more about the subject than when they entered. Did you know that Patrice Rushen (the early-’80s single “Forget Me Nots,” sampled for “Men in Black”) is a successful jazz pianist? Or that Louis Armstrong’s former wife Lil Hardin Armstrong died during a performance honoring her ex? The notion of women getting different professional opportunities during WWII and the film’s climactic reunion of many of its subjects recalls “A League of Their Own,” but Chaikin is careful to look at the present and note how many women are stars in the jazz world. “This is not a man’s game,” Grammy-winning singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding says. “We are creators.” Amen to that.
 

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mpais@tribune.com

 

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