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Peggy Gilbert, 102; blazed a trail for women in jazz

February 18, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

When Peggy Gilbert decided to switch from playing piano to saxophone when she was in high school in Sioux City, Iowa, in the 1920s, she faced resistance: Girls could play violin, piano and harp in the bands, she was told, but they weren't allowed to play wind instruments.

So the jazz-infatuated Gilbert, hot to learn the sax, took lessons from a local bandleader. And a year after high school graduation in 1923, she formed her own all-female jazz band, the Melody Girls.

The group was the first in a string of all-female jazz bands that Gilbert led throughout the 1920s, '30s and '40s, an era in which female musicians were commonly considered inferior to males, and Gilbert became known as a strong advocate for female instrumentalists.

Gilbert, a Studio City resident who led her most recent all-female band -- Peggy Gilbert and the Dixie Belles -- into her 90s, died of complications of hip surgery Monday at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, said her friend Jeannie Pool. She was 102.

Pool, a musicologist who recently completed a documentary and a biography of Gilbert, said that although the musician had been worried about her pending surgery, "she had me reading proofs [of the biography] to her at her bedside" the day before the operation.

Pool and Gilbert had been working on the biography -- "The Peggy Gilbert Story: American Jazz Band Leader, Saxophone Player and Advocate for Women Musicians" -- over the last four years.

"She had just a fabulous recollection of people's names, dates and places," Pool said. "One of the things about the film and the book is she not only tells about her own life, she documents dozens of women musicians and their careers."

That's why she described Gilbert as an advocate in the book's subtitle, Pool said.

"She often went down to the union and demanded equal opportunity for women instrumentalists, and she wrote a column" on female musicians for the Professional Musicians Local 47 newspaper. "She was always calling for an end to discrimination."

Pool said Gilbert's various all-woman bands played "hot jazz, and she was in the forefront of the swing movement in the 1930s," a time when her band appeared in a number of movies.

In 1937, Gilbert's band opened "The Second Hollywood Swing Concert" at the Palomar ballroom. Billed as Peggy Gilbert and Her Orchestra, it was the only female band on a bill that included Benny Goodman, Stuff Smith, Louis Prima, Ben Pollack and Les Hite.

"So if she had been a man, she would have been considered one of the great American bandleaders," Pool said. But she was a woman, "and they kept dismissing girl players as a novelty act, a freak show: 'Come and see if a girl can play a trombone.' She said, 'That's ridiculous; we're as good as a man.' "

For Gilbert, who did her own musical arranging and contracting, the prejudices that female musicians faced came to a head in 1938 after Down Beat magazine published an article headlined "Why Women Musicians Are Inferior."

In response, an irate Gilbert wrote an article chronicling the discrimination female musicians faced, only to be embarrassed when her article was published under the headline "How Can You Blow a Horn With a Brassiere?"

"It caused a big uproar in the jazz community," Pool said of the original Down Beat article. And Gilbert's response "sort of set her as the national advocate for women jazz musicians. She heard from musicians coast to coast thanking her for speaking out."

Pool is looking for a distributor for her documentary, "Peggy Gilbert and Her All-Girl Band." The film is narrated by another friend of Gilbert's, Lily Tomlin.

"We were just bonded the minute we met," said Tomlin, who had been impressed with meeting a female bandleader who "had been there and been a part of that whole era we can only read about."

Tomlin was among a couple of hundred friends and admirers who showed up for Gilbert's 100th birthday party at Local 47, where Gilbert entertained the crowd by singing, in full voice, "It Had to Be You."

By then, Gilbert hadn't played the sax publicly in four years. Tomlin, who has one of Gilbert's saxophone reeds as a keepsake, recalled asking Gilbert several years ago where her sax was.

"Oh, I sold it," Gilbert replied. "It was way too good a horn not to be played."

The former Margaret "Peggy" Knechtges was born in Sioux City on Jan. 17, 1905, and studied music with her father, a violinist and conductor of the Hawkeye Symphony Orchestra. Her mother frequently sang in opera choruses.

Gilbert, who took her mother's maiden name when she became a professional musician, played piano with her father's string and wind groups as a child. But she told The Times in 1981 that the first time she picked up a saxophone, "I said, 'This is it!' I loved the feel of it -- free and loose."

Gilbert moved to Los Angeles in 1928 when she was 23. When her band wasn't touring, it was playing local nightclubs, ballrooms and other venues.

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