Some Liked it Hot: Jazz Women in Film and Television, 1928-1959
by Kristin A. McGee, Wesleyan University Press, 316 pages
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