Lady Be Good (2014)

by | Feb 19, 2015 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

Lady Be Good (2014)

Cast: Lil Hardin Armstrong; Mary Lou Williams; Ada Leonard and her All-Girl Orchestra; The International Sweethearts of Rhythm; Ina Ray Hutton and The Melodears and The Hormel Girls; featuring interviews with Peggy Gilbert; Marian McPartland; Carline Ray; Quincy Jones, Jane Sager and many others
Director/Producer/Writer: Kay D Ray
Studio: Kay D Ray Productions
Narrator & Music: Patrice Rushen
Video: 4×3 Color & Black & White
Audio: English PCM Stereo
Length: 80 minutes
Rating: ****

The subject of women instrumentalists in jazz is not necessarily a secret. But is an overlooked facet to the overall landscape. Female musicians toiled in obscurity and suffered various forms of discrimination, like their counterparts in most other professions. Director/writer/producer Kay D Ray has crafted a thorough, chronological narrative about the ascension of women players in the annals of jazz. Lady Be Good utilizes vintage color and black & white film clips and photographs, introducing the audience to the dubious culture surrounding this phenomenon. Not surprisingly, many seminal breakthrough moments occur in New Orleans (in the 1920s). But outside of the Crescent City, the market for female bands is an amalgam of minstrel shows and novelty circuits.  Some of the early pioneers include Lil Hardin Armstrong (stride pianist and wife of the famous trumpeter), Sweet Emma Barrett and Jeanette Kimball. Most of the early bands were thrown together and struggled for economic viability.

As expected, success came with strings attached. Along with musical talent, femininity and costuming became the order of the day. Out of this emerged the first national star/band leader, Ina Ray Hutton (and The Melodears). Known for her “Jean Harlow” looks, rhythmic conducting and tough leadership, she set the bar for all who followed, including Ada Leonard (and her All-Girl Orchestra) and The International Sweethearts of Rhythm (which detailed fascinating revelations of mixed ethnic and racial development). Despite their musical prowess, male jazz artists were slow to accept them. Included are snarky remarks by Artie Shaw to confirm this. But as World War II unfolded, opportunities in male bands and USO shows changed the dynamics (for awhile anyway). There are many anecdotal stories that resonate. Female bands rarely, if ever auditioned musically, being hired on their looks. Female doublebass, drums and horn players were viewed with skepticism (not lady-like). Additionally the predatory male environment (which is documented in a creepy spiked drink recollection) was always present. It is noted that USO performers were encouraged to fraternize with male serviceman.

What can’t be denied is the talent. There are several performance clips that are terrific. Mary Lou Williams (in a duet with doublebass) establishes a Monk-like brilliance with intuitive elegance. Dorothy Donegan (an Art Tatum protégé) demonstrates her virtuosity with mind-boggling, flashy runs, and Marian McPartland (who is a contributor to the interviews) is also dazzling. Mary Osborne is exemplary as a guitarist. This is the bottom line. Underneath the evening gowns and feminized personas were serious talented musicians. The video quality of the film is acceptable, commensurate with the amount of vintage footage, The PCM stereo is good and the dialogue is clear. Lady Be Good is a story worth telling!

–Robbie Gerson

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