Performing on saxophones, clarinet, violin, vibes, plus singing, arranging, and contracting for women musicians, Peggy Gilbert (January 17, 1905-February 12, 2007) was a one-woman support network and staunch advocate for women instrumentalists, particularly in jazz, beginning in the 1920s. She performed publicly on the tenor saxophone for more than 80 years, inspiring and mentoring several generations of musicians.
Born in Sioux City, Iowa, Margaret Fern Knechtges studied music with her father, John Darwin Knechtges (1870-1927), founding member of the Sioux City, Iowa Local of the AFM), a violinist and orchestra leader. Her mother, Edith Gilbert (1880-1968), was a singer, often performing in opera choruses. At age 7, Peggy toured several Midwestern states with the quintessential Scotsman, Sir Harry Lauder, with a Highland dance troupe. From the age of nine, Peggy performed publicly with her father's string and wind groups. After hearing jazz on the radio, including the Kansas City Nighthawks, Peggy decided to take up the saxophone and become a jazz musician. After graduating high school, she started her first all-girl band, The Melody Girls that performed at the Martin Hotel in Sioux City and were broadcast nightly over local radio station KSCJ.
In 1928, at the age of 23, Peggy moved to Hollywood, and immediately began touring coast-to-coast and Canada in a sextet of women saxophone players backing up C-melody American saxophonist Rudolph "Rudy" Cornelius Wiedoeft (January 3, 1893 - February 18, 1940) in a show called Saxophobia Idea. At that time, she adopted her mother's maiden name because people had difficulty pronouncing and spelling Knechtges. In 1933 she played with a ten-member all-women's band, Boots and Her Buddies from Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1934, she founded her own band that played Honolulu and all the other Hawaiian islands, including Molakai.
In the 1930s her band appeared under a variety of names, including Peggy Gilbert and Her Metro Goldwyn Orchestra, Peggy Gilbert and her Symphonics, Peggy Gilbert and Her Coeds. Every time her band was hired, the job required that the band's name was changed. She organized bands and larger ensembles for motion pictures where the women musicians were expected to sing, dance in chorus lines, and act on screen. She was the playing-contractor of women musicians for many motion pictures, including The Great Waltz (MGM, 1938) for which she contracted 100 women musicians in the famous beer garden scene. Her all-girl band, at the forefront of the “swing movement” played in famous landmark ballrooms including the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs, the Coconut Grove, the Garden of Allah, the Club New Yorker, and the Zenda Ballroom. 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.
In 1937, her all-girl band opened Hollywood's Second "Swing Concert" at The Palomar in Los Angeles. It was the only women's band on a program with the bands of Benny Goodman, Stuff Smith, Louis Prima, Ben Pollack and Les Hite. Also beginning in 1938, she led the all-girl staff band called The Early Girls on radio station KMPC in Beverly Hills, where they played six days a week from 7 to 8:30 am.
In April 1938 Peggy responded to an article entitled, "Why Women Musicians are Inferior" in Downbeat with her own article, an articulate reaction to that era's notorious discrimination against women musicians. Much to her chagrin, however, the magazine published her article under the headline, "How Can You Play a Horn with A Brassiere?" Women musicians throughout the country wrote her with encouraging words and she took on a new role as an advocate for women instrumentalists.
In the early 1940s, she worked for a year on CBS's Victory Belles radio show. Her big band continued to play at famous Los Angeles hotspots. In 1944 she went on tour in Alaska for six months with an all-female USO show which included comedienne Thelma White. This USO tour was featured on an episode of This is Your Life. Following World War II women musicians were hired less often so the men returning from war would have employment, and Peggy's band had trouble finding work. So, in 1949 Peggy went to work full time at Local 47 of the Musicians Union.
Actually Peggy worked part time and as a volunteer at the Musicians Union in Los Angeles, Local 47, beginning in the early 1940s, when she helped place men musicians into military bands at the beginning of World War II. She called band leaders in the military and asked them if they could take another musician. She was on the committee that helped build the union’s Hollywood quarters in 1949 that currently houses the Local and her all-girl band performed at and she acted as a Mistress of Ceremonies for the gala opening that included many celebrity performances and appearances, broadcast nationally on radio. In the 1950s she was Secretary to the Secretary of the Board and eventually became Secretary to President. She retired from her position in 1970 at the age of 65, but continued to serve as a Trustee, on the Trial Board, on the Musicians Relief Committee and in 1989 was named Life Member of the Year.
Although Peggy worked for Local 47, she continued to perform. In the early 1950s she played with Ada Leonard's all-girl band on KTTV television for one year. In the 1940s and 50s she also had a band called The Jacks and Jills with her brother, Orval Gilbert, who played drums. The group included Marnie Wells (bass and trumpet) and Phil Stewart (piano), all well-known musicians in the Los Angeles area.
From 1979 until 1984, Peggy wrote a column, "Tuning In On Femme Musicians" for the union's newspaper The Overture. Many of her columns for The Overture were reports of the musical activities of women performers and also obituaries for many women musicians, providing important documentation of the careers of these women.
In 1974, at the age of 69, she started a new all-girl band, The Dixie Belles, to play a benefit concert for a well-known Dixieland player who was ill. The band clicked at the first rehearsal and they continued to play until the mid 1990s. The group, including Marnie Wells (1915-2005, trumpet and string bass); Natalie Robin (1919-1998, saxophones, clarinets, and oboe); Georgia Shilling (piano); Jerrie Thill (1917-2010) drums and vocals); Pearl Powers (1917-2005, bass). The band's original trombone player was Naomi Preble (1904-1995); the original bass player was Karen Donley, were all Life Members of Local 47.
The Dixie Belles performed on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson September 19, 1981, and were also featured in episodes of “L.A.'s PM Magazine,” “The Ellen Show,” “Madame's Place,” “Father Murphy,” “Darhma and Greg”, “Married With Children,” “Home Improvement,” and “The Golden Girls.” They appeared at big jazz festivals in San Francisco, Sacramento, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and also performed in concert, in parks, theaters, auditoriums, schools and senior citizen centers throughout Southern California. The Dixie Belles were featured in a video program for senior citizens called Staying Active: Wellness After Sixty, produced by Spectrum Films, Inc. when Peggy was in her 80s. The Dixie Belles can be heard on a Cambria Master Recordings compact disc.
In her eighties and nineties, Peggy appeared in commercials for Coca-Cola, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Toyota, Honey Baked Hams, among others. Often she would show up for a casting call to be told they wanted an old woman and she appeared to be too young. For her 100th birthday, celebrated at Local 47, the Board gave her a Local 47 jacket that proudly boasted, “Member Since 1929.” She sang “It Had To Be You,” accompanied by Jack Hyatt on piano.
My documentary film, narrated by Lily Tomlin, Peggy Gilbert and Her All-Girl Band (Jaygayle Music Productions, 2006; http://www.peggygilbert.org/) was described by veteran film critic Leonard Maltin as "A joyful celebration of one woman's extraordinary life." My biography of Peggy was published by Scarecrow Press in 2008 (Peggy Gilbert and Her All-Girl Band) and is available on Amazon.com.
Thanks to Beverly Simmons (ffortisimo design) for this lovely photograph of Peggy holding a poster to promotes the documentary film with the words, "For Your Consideration." Golly, gee, I sure wish I could find a distributor for this film. Any ideas?