"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.
Narrated by a sassy bunch of players who worked primarily in the 1930s and '40s - including the saxophonist Roz Cron and the pianist Marian McPartland - this is a story of punishing sexism bested by humor, determination and raw talent. Excluded from all-male bands, some women formed their own, enormously successful outfits like the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and the Melodears. Touring, however, was not without its perils.
"Traveling through the South is something we'd like to forget," Clora Bryant, the self-described "trumpetiste," tells us, recalling a Jim Crow law against mixed-race bands. Playing military bases during World War II was less hazardous and more fun, even if, as another interviewee points out, "a lot of girls had to go back to the kitchen" when veterans reclaimed their jobs.
Brilliant editing by Edward Osei-Gyimah arranges many of the film's priceless black-and-white performance clips into witty illustrations of the gals' anecdotes. So when one musician explains how women were expected to smile throughout a performance, her comment is followed by a montage of horn and trumpet players hilariously struggling to comply. I doubt anyone ever tried that with Dizzy Gillespie.