Trailblazing saxophonist and bandleader Peggy Gilbert, who broke barriers for women in the jazz world, died Feb. 12 in Los Angeles. Her death resulted from complications from hip surgery, said friend Jeannie Pool.
Dr. Pool, a musicologist, recently completed a documentary film (Peggy Gilbert and Her All-Girl Band) and a biography on Gilbert, The Peggy Gilbert Story: American Jazz Band Leader, Saxophone Player and Advocate for Women Musicians.
At a time when it was a social faux pas for women to pick up wind instruments, Gilbert learned the saxophone throughout high school. After her graduation in 1923, she formed the Melody Girls, the first of several all-female jazz bands.
Throughout the ’30s and ’40s, Gilbert toured with various groups, also playing local venues in her adopted home of L.A. In 1937, she shared a billing with Benny Goodman and other great artists at “The Second Hollywood Swing Concert.” A year later, she led the Early Girls, an all-woman band on staff at radio station KMPC.
In the 1940s, she enjoyed a yearlong stint at CBS as bandleader for Victory Belles, but after World War II, had trouble finding work. At the end of the decade, in 1949, Gilbert worked for the musicians’ union Local 47, leaving the job in 1970.
But four years later, Gilbert was back at it again, forming the Dixie Belles in 1974, arguably her most successful musical venture. The group landed spots on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Golden Girls, with Gilbert appearing in many subsequent commercials for television.
In 1938, Down Beat magazine released an article titled, “Why Women Musicians Are Inferior.” Gilbert attempted an angry response, only to be stabbed in the back when her article ran under the headline “How Can You Blow a Horn With a Brassiere?”
Undeterred, Gilbert continued as an activist for women musicians. She achieved a great reputation throughout her career for defending female instrumentalists’ rights, demanding equality from her union and calling for an end to discrimination.
Born Margaret “Peggy” Knechtges in Sioux City, Iowa on Jan. 17, 1905, Gilbert adopted her mother’s maiden name as a performer. Both her parents were musicians-her father was a violinist and conductor for the Hawkeye Symphony Orchestra, while her mother sang as an opera chorus member.
Gilbert is survived by longtime partner Kay Boley.Originally Published