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Gilbert, Peggy (1905-2007)  
 
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A virtuoso jazz musician, Peggy Gilbert was also the leader of a number of successful all-women bands. Throughout a career that lasted more than eight decades, she was dedicated to supporting and mentoring other female musicians, and was tireless in demanding that they receive the same respect and opportunities as men.

Peggy Gilbert seemed destined to become a musician. Her father, John Darwin Knechtges, played the violin and was the conductor of the Hawkeye Symphony Orchestra in Sioux City, Iowa. Her mother, Edith Gilbert Knechtges, sang in the chorus at the opera. When Gilbert was born on January 17, 1905, her parents had already acquired a piano for the child's eventual music lessons.

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Margaret Fern Knechtges, nicknamed Peggy, fulfilled her parents' aspirations, learning to play both the piano and the violin. She showed ability as a dancer as well. A grade-school teacher taught her and several classmates to do the Highland fling and had them perform it for Scottish entertainer Harry Lauder when he came to town. The music hall performer was charmed and had the children join his troupe for a summer tour.

Gilbert was seven when she made her stage debut. By the age of nine, she was playing both violin and piano in ensembles led by her father.

As a teenager, Gilbert became enamored of jazz and wanted to learn to play the saxophone. Since her high school did not permit girls to play large wind instruments, she took lessons from a local musician.

Gilbert knew immediately that she had found her instrument. "The first time I picked up a sax, I said, 'This is it!' I loved the feel of it--free and loose," she recalled.

After graduating from high school in 1923 Gilbert formed her first band, the Melody Girls. The group played at dances and on the radio in Sioux City.

When John Knechtges died in 1928, it fell to Gilbert to help provide for her mother and grandmother. All three moved to Los Angeles, where Gilbert sought work as a musician. As she embarked on this phase of her career, she adopted her mother's maiden name as her professional surname because people tended to misspell and mispronounce Knechtges.

Gilbert founded a new women's band in Los Angeles. The group changed its name frequently, but was known at various times as Peggy Gilbert and Her Metro Goldwyn Orchestra, Peggy Gilbert and Her Symphonics, and Peggy Gilbert and Her Coeds.

The band sometimes performed on the vaudeville circuit in shows starring such entertainers as George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, and Jimmy Durante, but Los Angeles remained their home base. The women performed in stylish ballrooms, including the Garden of Allah, the Cocoanut Grove, the Palomar, and the Zenda, and also at private events such as lavish New Year's Eve parties hosted by publisher William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies.

In the late 1930s, under the name the Early Girls, Gilbert and her band played live ninety-minute shows on a Beverly Hills radio station six mornings a week. Gilbert's women's jazz ensembles also performed in the films The Wet Parade (1932, directed by Victor Fleming), Melody for Two (1937, directed by Louis King), and The Great Waltz (1938, directed by Julien Duvivier).

In 1937 Gilbert's band, then known as Peggy Gilbert and Her Orchestra, was the opening act of "The Second Hollywood Swing Concert," which also featured such luminaries as Benny Goodman, Louis Prima, and Les Hite. "If she had been a man, she would have been considered one of the great American band leaders," contends music historian Jeannie Pool, but the music establishment "kept dismissing girl players as a novelty act, a freak show."

When Down Beat magazine echoed that sentiment by printing an article entitled "Why Women Musicians Are Inferior" in 1938, Gilbert responded by writing an article of her own, detailing discrimination against women performers. The magazine published it, but under the insulting title "How Can You Blow a Horn with a Brassiere?" Nevertheless, Gilbert's statement "set her as the national advocate for women jazz musicians," says Pool. "She heard from musicians from coast to coast thanking her for speaking out."

During World War II, Gilbert joined the USO. With other women, she put on shows for the troops--once traveling by dogsled to bases in Alaska--and visited wounded military personnel on hospital ships.

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