Peggy Gilbert

When I was watching “The Girls in the Band,” I was immediately drawn to Peggy Gilbert’s fiery spirit. At age 100 she was giving interviews, sharp as a tack, sharing her beautiful philosophy of life —that we were put on this earth to help others.

Musicologist, Dr. Jeannie Pool has done excellent work in documenting Peggy’s life. She’s written a book on her life as well as directed, written, and underscored a documentary on Ms. Gilbert (which is narrated by Lily Tomlin, and which I hope to have the opportunity to see someday…), and she put together a great website honoring the legacy of Ms. Gilbert (see below). Dr. Pool writes, “Performing on saxophones, clarinet, violin, vibes, plus singing, arranging, and booking and contracting for women musicians, Peggy Gilbert was a one-woman support network and staunch advocate for women since the 1920s. She performed publicly on the tenor saxophone more than 80 years, until 1996, and inspired and mentored several generations of musicians.” [1]

The way she describes her relationship with her sax reminds me of the way I felt the first time I played a tenor saxophone: “The first time I picked up a sax, I said, ‘This is it!’ I loved the feel of it —free and loose.” [2]

It’s difficult to sum up such an incredible life in a short post, but I’m going to try to give you some key points on Ms. Gilbert’s life, then I’m going to get myself out to the woodshed.

She was born Margaret Fern Knechtges (later adopted the name, Peggy Gilbert) in Sioux City, Iowa to parents who were also classical musicians and who trained young Peggy in violin and piano. When she was in high school, she heard the Kansas City Nighthawks and other groups on the radio and decided to learn the saxophone. Her school refused to allow her to play the instrument of her choice as she was told “large wind instruments were not suitable for young ladies,” so she taught herself. [2]

She moved to Hollywood in 1928 at the age of 23 and began touring throughout North America with other musical women, vaudeville tours, etc. In 1933, she founded her own band and played all over the Hawaiian Islands. Throughout the ’30s, she was performing with her own band, but the band name changed every time they were hired. She also organized music for motion pictures and performed in famous ballrooms. [3]

According to Dr. Pool, “Unlike many of the glamour girls who only fronted all-girl bands in the 1930s and ’40s, Peggy was the actual leader and manager, and always performed with the groups. Not only did she organize her bands, arrange for rehearsals and put together the musical arrangements, but she also was in charge of the whole look and sound of the band, and often came up with their costumes.” Her all-girl band opened Hollywood’s second “Swing Concert” in LA in 1937 and was the only women’s band alongside the likes of Benny Goodman, Stuff Smith, Louis Prima, Ben Pollack, and Les Hite. [1]

In 1938, Downbeat magazine published an article titled “Why Women Musicians are Inferior,” which infuriated Ms. Gilbert, so she wrote in with a reply, which the magazine offensively titled, “How Can You Blow a Horn with a Brassiere.” (Which my cartoon brain is interpreting as a tenor sax wearing a lace bra around the bell.) Regardless of their unfortunate treatment of her reply, her articulate response “gave her national prominence as an advocate for women instrumentalists.” [3]

In 1944, she met her life partner, Kay Boley and they would remain living together for the rest of their long and full lives. She says at the time “there was no presumption or discussion of a lesbian lifestyle,” and they were accepted by friends and family. [4]

From the late ’40s through the ’70s Ms. Gilbert worked for the local 47 union, still playing occasionally until she retired at age 65. But she wasn’t one to really retire, so in the late ’70s she formed yet another all-female band, “The Dixie Belles” who recorded an album in 1985 when Peggy was 80 years old! [3]

She stayed active until she passed away at age 102.

I wish I could hear some recordings of her groups from the ’30s and ’40s! If anyone knows of any, I’d love to hear them! It is great to hear her honking away on her tenor sax at age 80, though. Listen here.

(Re)sources

[1] Jeannie Pool. “Peggy Gilbert.” The Peggy Gilbert Story. 2007. (http://www.peggygilbert.org/biography.html).

[2] Margalit Fox. “Peggy Gilbert, 102, Dies; Led Female Jazz Ensembles.” The New York Times. February 25, 2007. (https://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/25/arts/music/25gilbert.html).

[3] Lou Ceffer. “‘How Can You Blow a Horn with A Brassiere?’ The Peggy Gilbert Story.” Spy Hollywood. June 4, 2016. (http://spyhollywood.com/how-can-you-blow-a-horn-with-a-brassiere-the-peggy-gilbert-story/).

[4] Wikipedia contributors, “Peggy Gilbert,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Peggy_Gilbert&oldid=878813597 (accessed January 19, 2019).

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