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The Girls in the Band

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“They wiggled, they jiggled, they wore low cut gowns and short shorts, they kowtowed to the club owners and smiled at the customers…and they did it all, just to play the music they loved.” This is the synopsis of the hot new film The Girls in the Band, a documentary that reveals the poignant, untold stories of female jazz and big band instrumentalists and their fascinating, groundbreaking journeys from the late 20s to the present day.

We would add that many such jazz artists from back in the day, and now, come from our own LGBT community. They were butch, femme and everything in between.

Harlem in the 1920s saw a veritable explosion of LGBT jazz artists, many of whom were women. We include the names of some of these talented individuals on our front page: Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Moms Mabley, Mabel Hampton, Ma Rainey and Ethel Waters. There were many more.

Songs brazenly included words such as “sissy” and “bulldagger.” One song even included the lyric, “If you can’t bring me a woman, bring me a sissy man.”

Books could, and have, been written about their often-colorful love lives. For example, saxophonist and bandleader Peggy Gilbert, famous for appearances at well-known spots such as the Cotton Club and the Cocoanut Grove, met contortionist Kay Boley one night and fell madly in love. Billy Tipton, born Dorothy Tipton, lived as a man and settled down with nightclub dancer and stripper Kitty Kelly.

And then there is the music: the unforgettable melodies that can take us from the lowest of bluesy lows to the most ecstatic highs of Ellen Seeling’s trumpet blasts. Seeling, featured on our cover, is the Director of the Montclair Women’s Big Band. She founded the band in 1998 to provide greater visibility to Bay Area women, including LGBT women, jazz artists. They have performed at the Kennedy Center, the Grammy Foundation in L.A. and at numerous other venues. They are still going strong.

The Girls in the Band, produced, directed and written by Judy Chaikin, celebrates women jazz artists and screens January 17-23 at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Chaikin, Seeling and others will be at the latter on January 18 for a panel discussion immediately following the evening showing of the film. As Chaikin says, “Our greatest satisfaction will come if this film can inspire a new crop of young female jazz musicians to stand on the shoulders of those early pioneers and to reach for the stars.”