“Oh, yes, I can!” This was always Peggy Gilbert’s response to being told “no.” Throughout her years as a leader and performer in various bands, Gilbert was a figure who many looked up to, women and men alike. Her bands blazed through the music industry with intense determination and outplayed almost everyone that came in contact with them. However, their skill level did not excuse them from prejudice and sexism. In her book, Peggy Gilbert & Her All-Girl Band, Jeannie Gayle Pool utilizes Gilbert’s story to emphasize her messages of feminism and equality. However, Pool’s examination of Gilbert’s impressive and tenacious career is not without its flaws. Pool’s praise of Gilbert’s feminism fails to recognize its inherent racism.
On January 17, 1905, Margaret Fern Knechtges Gilbert was born in Sioux City, Iowa to parents John Darwin Knechtges and Edith Ella Gilbert. From a young age, Peggy was taught by her parents “to treat everyone with respect”, a mantra that remained with her until her death on February 12, 2007. In her early years as a saxophonist, clarinetist, and vocalist, Gilbert formed the first “all-girl” band in Sioux City, “The Melody Girls,” which featured some of Peggy’s friends (18). Because of the delighted responses received from their audiences, they continued to play at venues across the U.S. including states such as California, Hawaii, and Alaska. Although Gilbert was always the leader of these bands, they performed under a variety of different names with a variety of different members. One problematic feature of these bands was that they never had any women of color. Pictures included in this biography by Pool display only white women, mostly with blonde hair and blue eyes; the classic “American” girl of the time. In addition, the girls were required to dress in a feminine manner because “girl bands were hired as attractions for men” (62). Girl bands were seen as inferior to other bands, especially before men in the U.S. went to Europe for World War II, because “only men can play good jazz” (91). The music scene was completely different during World War II in that there were fewer men to perform. Even though women were more accepted by audiences, Peggy’s bands still “had to refuse club owners requests to do some ‘stunts’” (sexy and risqué parts of their show) in addition to having to “avoid sexual overtures from officers” while touring Alaska (116). The American music industry Gilbert and her bands faced gave male and female musicians very different experiences. Peggy Gilbert changed this experience for numerous women in the instrumental world throughout her long and accomplished life.
Although Gilbert remains a strong figure in the jazz world even today, Pool’s story of her life excludes narratives about people of color, specifically black women. I found this especially interesting because jazz is shaped by the history and cultural impact of slavery, and rooted in the Blues. By excluding the black woman’s experience, Pool walks the line of racism while advocating for feminism. Throughout the entire biography, Pool uses feminism as a unifying force for her writing, but that only pertains to white women. This is a common theme throughout the 20th century that still persists today. The word “feminism” advocates exclusively for white women, while “racism” advocates exclusively for black men, leaving women of color unaccounted for. Some of the biggest jazz figures during Peggy’s career were black women such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Ma Rainey which were never placed in the narrative. When Pool does mention black people, it is usually in a context of Peggy Gilbert running into them at a restaurant or gig. For example, Pool mentions that Gilbert occasionally hung out with black musicians while the road, and after talking with them, realized that black players “played great” (95). After coming into contact with African-American jazz musicians, Peggy states that she became aware of how segregated the music scene was for people of color. It seemed, at times, that Pool missed or excluded vital information about the jazz environment during the early 1900s.
Overall, I appreciated the insight that Peggy Gilbert and her All-Girl Band gave to me on the life of white woman jazz musicians in the 20th century. Pool included enough quotes and pictures to keep the reader interested and involved in the story line. Her feminist points were made clear by quotes that she chose jazz musicians who both agreed and disagreed with her ideas. She also addressed the context of the environment that Peggy was involved with. For example, she included visuals and brief synopses of aspects of the jazz world for readers not heavily acquainted the facets of jazz. This included information about jazz song form (20), Vaudeville performance bills (35), and popular songs to perform in the early 1900s. From start to finish, Pool efficiently and thoroughly describes the life of Peggy Gilbert while keeping her feminist ideas as a golden thread that is woven throughout the narrative. Like numerous female musicians of today’s society, it is evident that Peggy Gilbert succeeded in her goal of remaining strong in the face of patriarchal adversity until the day that she died.