City Paper is not for tourists
“You play well for a girl” is one of many backhanded compliments the pioneers of Judy Chaikin’s The Girls in the Band endured within the male-dominated world of jazz. The documentary chronicles the numerous double standards and indignities faced by female performers—to say nothing of the outfits—along with the piercing cruelty of Jim Crow-era restrictions on touring musicians. Through interviews with performers Viola Smith, Roz Cron, Peggy Gilbert, and Billie Rogers, the doc moves beyond dusty historical narrative, inserting lived experience into the archival footage. (On Tommy Dorsey, one woman drolly remarks that he was “not the best I’ve ever had.”) Sadly, Chaikin—best known for her Emmy-nominated PBS documentary Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist—abruptly shifts gears in the third act, providing a flimsy link between these forgotten legends and the current crop of female jazz musicians that includes Esperanza Spalding and Maria Schneider. By trying to tidily connect the dots, the heart of this story is pushed aside, making The Girls in the Band a noteworthy yet incomplete document of a movement worth rediscovering.