Can you name a female jazz musician from the ’30s? I couldn’t.

My mom and I were lucky enough to see a new film called “Girls in the Band” this past Friday night at Real Art Ways in Hartford. The film itself is phenomenal, with wicked old film clips and photographs from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and great recent interviews with the women it was profiling.

 

The film struck a chord with me because in some ways, it is about me. I was astonished to realize while watching the film that unfortunately not much has changed since these women were my age; 60-70 years ago. They faced unfathomable sexism just trying to pursue their dream of playing in jazz bands during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Some of these women even faced racism.

 

In most of my jazz experiences I have either been the only female in the band, or been lucky enough to have one or two other women there as well. I have almost always been the only female horn player, especially trombone.

 

I was telling my mom as we drove home that during the film it hit me that I have experienced sexism at almost every gig, especially jazz, that I have ever done.  I recognize this sounds weird. Like how could I have not known? But I never put two and two together until watching this film and seeing that the same comments these women got are the same comments I still get in 2014. “Wow, that’s a pretty big instrument. Sure you can handle it?” “The horn is your size, I bet you can’t make a good sound out of it.”

 

I always just smile, partially because I am shy, and partially because I have an even better comeback than words. My sound. My sound, I am lucky enough, is really good. I just let them laugh to themselves that a “girl” is playing bass trombone, and sometimes tuba, until I play my first LOUD low note. I have noticed that after a first-time gig I never get the same comments. Hrothgar, my beloved bass trombone, has never let me down on that.

 

The ladies in the film commented multiple times that they were told to “smile at the ladies” and they thought this was laughable because “How am I supposed to smile with a horn in my mouth?!” When I play, I hope that kids, and especially young girls can see and hear me, and see that this is possible. I never thought it wasn’t. There was an extremely talented young lady who was a few years ahead of me in high school who played the bass trombone in the top jazz band before I got there. So to me, having a female bass trombone player was basically the norm.

 

While I’m lucky that it was the norm to have female bass trombone players where I was growing up, it is distressing to come to terms with the fact that sexism is still apparent in the music world, especially jazz. I can’t get over it that the same things are still said to and about women as they were said in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

 

This film is an important film because it has a strong feminist message (!), and the history of these women is never told. I took many music history classes for my jazz trombone degree and never ONCE heard about the women mentioned in this film. That’s wrong because these women were EXTREMELY talented. It was so amazing to see bits of film from their day of them soloing. Their stories need to be told.

 

The culture of only telling the men’s jazz history will need to change in order to show women in jazz that they truly are equal. Maybe then men will feel less comfortable making comments about our size, or our ability just because we are women. I welcome that day.

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