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JAZZ : Swinging Through the Ages

October 25, 1990|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

When Peggy Gilbert put her group the Dixie Belles together 15 years ago, she says, "I never dreamed that we'd keep it up, because of our ages."

She was 70 at the time. But at age 85, Gilbert is still going strong, and so is the rest of her six-piece all-female jazz band. Though the youngest member of the group is 69 years old, the Dixie Belles keep a busy schedule, averaging between two and three shows a week. Those can range from Palm Springs senior dances to the Monterey Jazz Festival to appearances on "The Tonight Show" and "Golden Girls." They will perform Saturday at the Yorba Linda Forum Theater.

For all the Dixie Belles--leader, tenor sax player and singer Gilbert, pianist Georgia Shilling, drummer and singer Jerrie Thill, clarinetist Natalie Robin, trumpeter Mariam Wells and bassist Pearl Powers--the active gigging is merely a continuation of the life they've known for decades. According to Gilbert, most are veterans of name swing bands, including the all-female outfits of bandleaders Ina Ray Hutton, Ada Leonard and Gilbert's own L.A.-based band of the '30s.

An 85-year-old lady blowing lively, Coleman Hawkins-influenced tenor sax is no more unusual than the idea of a woman playing jazz at all was in the late '20s, when Gilbert started.

Speaking by phone from her Studio City home, Gilbert said she was set on a career playing jazz saxophone by the time she was out of high school in her native Sioux City, Iowa. Not that school was any help. Gilbert said girl players weren't allowed to play wind instruments in the school bands, being relegated instead to the "womanly" violin, piano and harp.

She instead took sax lessons from a local bandleader and played her first professional gig in her brother Orville's band in 1926. Not long after, she started her own all-female band in Sioux City called the Melody Girls.

"Of course, women musicians were not accepted to play with male bands for a long time," she said, "and that was the reason in the first place for the all-girl orchestras. They had to get together and form their own bands because there was nowhere else to play. They were called 'all-girl' bands in those days, and that's why I keep using that term. Now they like to be called women musicians instead of girls."

Gilbert moved to Los Angeles in 1928 and promptly formed another band. Though she said she always got along well with male musicians, being accepted by club owners was another matter. Asked if the female musicians felt pressure to prove themselves to audiences, Gilbert said, " Always . We always had to be not 'as good as,' but better than the men to prove that we could play. And we did win audiences over. It wasn't until the '40s, though, that women musicians began to really be accepted."

Despite the obstacles, Gilbert had a successful time. Her band found regular work in the ballrooms--she recalls one show at L.A.'s Palomar Ballroom sharing the bill with Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and other greats--and such clubs as Ciros and the Club New Yorker, as well as touring nationally.

"We were playing theaters coast to coast all the time. It was a great time in the music business," Gilbert said, though she also allowed, "Sometimes it was difficult. If you're doing one-nighters and playing ballrooms you have to travel during the day and sometimes would get in just in time to go on the bandstand."

In 1938 she led the all-woman staff band at radio station KMPC and in 1942 was a weekly part of the wartime CBS Victory Belles program. She hasn't stopped yet.

"Jazz has never really gone out," Gilbert maintains, "Of course, we don't make the money the rock bands do. They're the ones with the limos and we're the ones driving station wagons."

Does she feel playing music helps keep one feeling young?

"Oh my, I should say so. Do you ever happen to think what the world would be without it? I keep thinking 'How long can I last?' But as long as I can keep playing music, I want to. A while ago People magazine asked our trumpet player how long she would keep playing, and she said, 'As long as I have my teeth.' "

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