A familiar line that has been used in live shows for years is ‘let’s hear it for the boys in the band’. Additionally, Boys In The Band (albeit with a different meaning) has been the title of both a play and a movie, so it has become a familiar phrase. A new documentary takes advantage of that familiarity but turns it around, calling itself The Girls In The Band. It celebrates the ladies who have often been forgotten when people look at the history of jazz during the big band era.
We’ve featured lots of ladies from that period here on the ol’ GMC, but they’ve mostly been vocalists, rather than the instrumentalists who are the main focus of the documentary. Ironically, the lady who was for years the nominal leader of one of the best bands around was mostly a vocalist herself, but the group she led — The International Sweethearts Of Rhythm — was loaded with talent.
Anna Mae Winburn joined the band during the war years, after it had already been around for a while and had found some success with stars like trumpeter Tiny Davis and saxophonist Willie Mae Wong. It had come a long way from its humble beginnings at a Mississippi school for poor black children, but as a racially-mixed outfit it played to mostly black audiences and escaped the notice of mainstream music fans.
The decade of the 1940s was the period of most success for The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, with Winburn getting most of the spotlight but the band receiving recognition too, not only from knowledgeable fans but other (male) musicians too. But within a few years the whole big band era began winding down and all-female bands were not immune to changing musical tastes. In fact, the cover story of the 1954 magazine shown here relates to that. And even though the band would continue for a number of years with varying personnel and would have periods of moderate success during the rise of the feminist movement, the golden age of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was pretty much in the rear-view mirror.