January 17, 1905 - February 12, 2007
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.
Born in Sioux City, Iowa, Margaret Fern Knechtges studied music with her father, John Darwin Knechtges (1870-1927), 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 on piano and violin with her father's string and wind groups. After hearing jazz groups on the radio, especially the Kansas City Nighthawks, Peggy decided to take up the saxophone to become a jazz musician. After graduating high school, she started her first all-girl band, The Melody Girls, which performed at the Martin Hotel in Sioux City. Their performances were broadcast nightly over local radio station KSCJ.
In 1928, at the age of 23, Peggy moved to Hollywood, and immediately began touring throughout North America in a sextet of women saxophone players backing up C-melody saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft in a show called Saxophobia Idea, produced by Fanchon and Marco. This was followed by two other vaudeville tours, Jazz Temple Idea and Busy Bee Idea. At that time, she adopted her mother's maiden name, because people had difficulty pronouncing and spelling Knechtges. In 1933, she played with an all-women's band, Boots and Her Buddies from Lincoln, Nebraska. Later that year, she founded her own band that played Honolulu and all the other Hawaiian islands.
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 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. Her all-girl band played in famous landmark ballrooms, including the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs, the Cocoanut Grove, the Garden of Allah, the Club New Yorker, The Cotton Club, The Italian Village, The Rice Bowl, and the Zenda and Figueroa ballrooms. 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.
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.
Down Beat Magazine
In April 1938, Peggy responded to an article entitled, "Why Women Musicians are Inferior" in Down Beat magazine 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 Blow a Horn with A Brassiere?" This gave her national prominence as an advocate for women instrumentalists.
In the early 1940s, she worked for a year on CBS's Victory Belles radio show and her big band continued to play at famous Los Angeles hotspots. She went on tour in Alaska for six months in 1944, with an all-female USO show which included comedienne Thelma White. This USO tour was the subject of a 1957 episode of Ralph Edwards's This is Your Life on television. Following World War II, women musicians were hired less often to make employment available to the men returning from war; Peggy's band had trouble finding work. So Peggy went to work fulltime at Local 47 of the Musicians Union, beginning in 1949, serving in various secretarial positions. She was on Local 47's Building Committee which resulted in the new building on Vine Street in Hollywood, into which the Union moved in 1950. Eventually, she became Secretary to the President of Local 47.
Although Peggy worked for the union, she continued to perform and "side-line" in films. She played with Ada Leonard's all-girl band on KTTV television for one year in the early 1950s. Throughout the 1940s and '50s she also had a band called The Jacks and Jills with her drummer brother, Orval Gilbert, and with trumpeter-bass player, Marnie Wells.
At the age of 65, Peggy retired from her position at Local 47, but continued to serve on various union committees and on the Board of Trustees. From 1979 until 1984, she wrote a monthly column, "Tuning In On Femme Musicians," for the union's publication, The Overture.
The Dixie Belles
Not the retiring sort, at the age of 69, Peggy 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 (trumpet and string bass); Natalie Robin (saxophones, clarinets, and oboe); Georgia Shilling (piano); Jerrie Thill (drums and vocals); Pearl Powers (bass). The band's original trombone player was Naomi Preble; the original bass player was Karen Donley.
The Dixie Belles performed on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on 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," among others. 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, originally recorded as an L.P. in 1986, produced by Jeannie Pool, and re-released on compact disc in 2006.
In her eighties and early nineties, Peggy appeared in commercials for Coca-Cola, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Toyota, Honey Baked Hams, Lucky Markets, and Ultimate Electronics, among others. Often she would show up for a casting call, only to be told they wanted an old woman and she appeared to be too young.
Active to the very end, Peggy Gilbert made "daily rounds" of phone calls, to check on friends and relatives and help with the research on her biography. She died on February 12, 2007, at the age of 102, due to complications from hip surgery. Her life-long friend and partner, Kay Boley, died on April 1, 2007. They are buried next to each other at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Hollywood Hills, California.
Jeannie Pool holds a Ph.D. in musicology from the Claremont Graduate University and currently serves as music consultant to Paramount Pictures. She produced Peggy's one and only commercially available recording, Peggy Gilbert and The Dixie Belles: Dixieland Jazz, on the Cambria Master Recordings label, and is writing Peggy Gilbert's biography.
©Jeannie G. Pool, 2007. All rights reserved.