Some Liked it Hot: Jazz Women in Film and Tele­vi­sion, 1928-1959

by Kristin A. McGee, Wes­leyan Uni­ver­sity Press, 316 pages

Pasatiempo - - Book Reviews -

Any movie fan or devo­tee of late-night TV will re­mem­ber and smile at Bil­lyWilder’s 1959 Some Like it Hot. Jack Lem­mon and Tony Cur­tis play jazz mu­si­cians who in­ad­ver­tently wit­ness a con­tract killing and must flee for their lives. Their so­lu­tion is to dress up in drag and hit the road with an all-girl group that in­cludes a singer played by Marilyn Mon­roe. Some pretty ob­vi­ous trans­gen­der com­edy fol­lows, but it’s tinged with real dan­ger and but­tressed by some good mu­sic-mak­ing be­fore the plot is wrapped up.

As McGee makes clear in this in­ter­est­ing and per­sua­sive study, the guys’ dilemma philo­soph­i­cally mir­rors the chal­lenges women jazz mu­si­cians faced all along in the 20th cen­tury— from the beginning of the De­pres­sion through the tight 1930s, into the hec­tic years ofWorld War II, and fi­nally into calmer wa­ters dur­ing the na­tion’s pros­per­ous 1950s. Women want­ing to en­ter clas­si­cal mu­sic faced real ob­sta­cles then— even those who played “fem­i­nine” in­stru­ments such as harp, flute, or per­haps vi­o­lin— but fe­male jazzers faced even more, es­pe­cially if they were sax play­ers, trum­peters, trom­bon­ists, or per­cus­sion­ists try­ing to make it in a man-cen­tric world rather than stick­ing to “safe” po­si­tions as vo­cal­ists or pi­anists.

All-girl bands were an ob­vi­ous op­tion, and many were formed dur­ing this pe­riod and even be­fore. There’s safety in num­bers, and while life on the road was hard for jazzmen who weren’t head­line stars, women could have it even tougher, whether they were play­ing in vaude­ville, a movie house, or for a va­ri­ety act in a straight the­ater. And yet as McGee notes, the cu­rios­ity-cum-tit­il­la­tion many peo­ple felt with a girl band was a leg-up for keep­ing groups go­ing even as it en­forced stereotypes. As first film and then tele­vi­sion be­came more and more tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced, they of­fered more and more job op­por­tu­ni­ties out­side the night­club or the dance hall while still play­ing on the fe­male an­gle.

McGee is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of pop­u­lar mu­sic at the Uni­ver­sity of Gronin­gen in the Nether­lands, but while this book has some­thing of an aca­demic tone, it’s still a tan­ta­liz­ing trip through ter­ri­tory few read­ers will have ex­am­ined be­fore. There are four big chap­ters, each di­vided into smaller fo­cus sec­tions: “Jazz Cul­ture and All-Girl Films,” “All-Girl Bands and Sound Films in the Swing Era,” “Soundies and Fea­tures dur­ing the 1940s,” and “Va­ri­ety Tele­vi­sion and the 1950s.”

McGee’s trac­ing of the path girl bands took from the big screen into tele­vi­sion is mas­ter­ful, and she has writ­ten ex­cel­lent stud­ies of the Har­lem Play­girls, Ina Ray Hut­ton and her Melodears, the bril­liant pi­anist Hazel Scott, the In­ter­na­tional Sweet­hearts of Rhythm, and such stars as Peggy Lee and Lena Horne, among oth­ers.

There is only a pass­ing ref­er­ence to Blanche Cal­loway— aunt of the late Chris Cal­loway of Santa Fe and sis­ter to band­leader Cab— prob­a­bly be­cause she con­ducted an all-boy band. McGee’s dis­cus­sion of the role of girl bands in the films made for en­ter­tain­ing black sol­diers dur­ing WorldWar II is an ex­cep­tional sec­tion among many other good ones.

— Craig Smith

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