The Girls in the Band Corrects a Footnote in Musical History


It’s a cultural travesty that the women of early jazz—not just singers, but instrumentalists of all kinds—have become a neglected footnote in music history, but Judy Chaikin’s well-researched, buoyantly entertaining documentary portrait could be the corrective. Bookended with Art Kane’s legendary brownstone-steps photo “A Great Day in Harlem,” that summer-of-1958 who’s who of prominent jazz musicians (only three of them women), the film offers an affectionate, anecdotal female perspective of the era from golden-age musicians now in their golden years. Fighting constant sexism, especially after their male counterparts returned from WWII service and took over their gigs, these strong-willed musicians had to band together as all-girl groups in order to avoid the cutesy, novelty fates forced on the fairer sex. (One interviewed personality—and they’re all personalities of great charm and eloquence—recalls a Siamese-twin saxophone act that performed on roller skates.) The retro photos and footage are also bountiful and, natch, jazzily edited enough that the standard talking-head techniques are instantly forgivable. It’s only in the film’s last 20 minutes that Chaikin overreaches a bit by pushing the timeline forward, linking a modern wave of jazz women with their forebears in a long-winded epilogue.