b. Margaret Fern Knechtges, 17 January 1905, Sioux City, Iowa, USA, d. 12 February 2007, Los Angeles, California, USA. Gilbert’s mother was a singer, her father a violinist. She studied piano as a child, then took up clarinet and tenor saxophone. She led the all-woman Melody Girls at local hotels from 1923 and in 1928 moved to California, at which time she adopted her mother’s maiden name. Gilbert played in various bands, including one led by virtuoso saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft. She led all-female bands, including the Early Girls, the house band at station KMPC, and also toured. Gilbert then quit to return home for a ‘normal’ life and a boyfriend; an idea that lasted until she got off the train. As she told writer Sally Placksin in American Women In Jazz, ‘I looked at Sioux City and I said, “Wow, boyfriend be damned! This is it! I can’t stand it.” So I borrowed his horn and joined Boots and her Buddies’. She toured with this band for a while, then formed another band that she led through the late 30s. Hers was the only all-female band to play at a 1937 swing concert at Hollywood’s Palomar Ballroom, sharing the stage with bands led by Benny Goodman, Les Hite, Louis Prima, Stuff Smith and others.
When DownBeat magazine blared in a 1938 article that a female musician ‘never was born capable of sending anyone further than the nearest exit’ and that women were, ‘as a whole, emotionally unstable’ (among the least offensive comments), Gilbert wrote a vigorous response, only to have the magazine impose the headline, ‘How Can You Play a Horn with a Brassiere’. The headline did not stop female musicians from vociferously supporting Gilbert’s position and she was later important in the long battle women undertook to achieve respect in the music business in general and in jazz in particular.
During the war years, Gilbert led the CBS radio band, the Victory Belles, toured US army camps, and after the war continued to lead her band into the modern age. Another band she led was the Jacks And Jills, in which her brother, Orval Gilbert, played drums. She also led her band in some films. Gilbert formed her last band, the Dixie Belles, in 1974, which lasted until 1998.