06/05/2013 07:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Can You Smile With a Horn in Your Mouth?


That is the question posed by one of the musicians in Judy Chaikin's illuminating and joyful new documentary The Girls in the Band, and one of the best lines in the film because it so perfectly serves the story's animus -- pointing up the challenges faced by female jazz musicians in the 30's, as well as the larger issue of sexism, which endures (by golly) in the 21st century.

Peggy Gilbert, a big band instrumentalist you may never have heard of unless you're a jazz aficionado, is one of the many talented musicians interviewed in the film, and she recounts being instructed by a club owner to make sure and smile at the audience while she plays because, you know, she's a girl and girls have to play nice to be accepted in a man's world.

How can you smile with a horn in your mouth?

The line, delivered with genuine puzzlement, got one of the biggest laughs from the audience, and I cackled right along with everyone; but it also made me squirm some. Because right in the middle of relishing these gifted women's perseverance, my mind jumped to the seemingly unrelated recent stories in the news about the crazy number of sexual assaults on women -- in the military; while passed out from too much booze at a party; at gunpoint on a bus in front of horrified passengers in Brazil; and in India where it is now described as a "national problem."

Shut up and focus, I told myself, and luckily, I was able to push the thought away and get back to reveling in all that great music and the fabulous women of jazz who, in spite of head-reeling talent, never got the kind of recognition their male counterparts enjoy. Ever hear of Dizzy Gillespie? Louis Armstrong? Herbie Hancock? Of course you have. Are you a jazz aficionado? Probably not.

Oops, there goes my mind again. Excuse me for a minute, but I just have to ask: what is wrong with men? And why do they feel they can piss all over women just because they can easily overpower us, and because the system is rigged in their favor? News flash: this is not a new phenomenon. Evidence the caveman who dragged his woman around by the hair. Why? Because he could, of course.

Guys! Lookie here! We are your fellow human beings, equal in every way but for physical power. Remind you of something? Equal rights for blacks, perhaps? Equal Rights Amendment, maybe?

Here's the other great thing about this film: the story of the brilliant musicians who were discriminated against, bypassed and road-blocked simply because they were women is seamlessly interwoven with the shifting cultural politics of the United States from the thirties through WWII, the Civil Rights and Women's Liberation movements and up to the modern landscape in which we live. Thankfully, the changes have been thunderous, giving women like Esperanza Spalding (also featured in the film) and other women in jazz the moxie to forge through and shine their own special light. No hair-grabbing and dragging needed; just really strong kicks through closed doors with spectacularly muscled legs.

So, even though a part of me wanted to seethe, I was too carried away by the film's expert re-writing of history to reveal the untold tale of the girls in the band; by the triumph of talent undiminished by adversity; and of course, by the sheer exuberance of the music itself, which can never be eclipsed.

I loved The Girls in The Band. I recommend you go see it! It's playing for a week at the Laemmle NoHo 7, Friday, June 7-13.