Jane Sager

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Female jazz trumpeter who, well often overlooked, broke down barriers working with many prominent WWII-era bands.
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b. 5 June 1914, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. Sager started out playing violin and at the age of 10 was heard on radio. An injury to her left hand, caused when she was knocked from a bicycle, prompted a change of instrument. She chose the trumpet, and while this might have seemed a strange choice for a small girl in the 20s, it was decidedly fortuitous. Very soon she was playing in local dance bands, the other members of which were all male. Later, she studied violin at Stevens College in Chicago and then at the American Conservatory of Music. Her trumpet tuition was concurrently in the classics and jazz. As she told writer and broadcaster Sally Placksin, in American Women In Jazz, ‘I studied with the first [-chair] trumpet player in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Roy Eldridge at the same time.’

A highly accomplished trumpet player, in the mid-30s Sager played in several all-female bands, including that led by Rita Rio. Sager was also a member of bands that were otherwise all male. In 1940, she played with the Chicago Women’s Symphony Orchestra and was also a member of an all-female band led by saxophonist Bernice Little. When the band’s agent suggested that they hire Ada Leonard as their leader, Sager was instrumental in persuading her reluctant colleagues to give the burlesque dancer a chance. She went further, coaching Leonard in the needs of appearing to conduct the band and thus helped assure their success when Ada Leonard’s All-American Girl Orchestra became a reality. As the band’s featured trumpet soloist, Sager went on the hugely successful USO tour that made the band’s name. Sager’s solos included her own take on the currently popular Harry James feature, ‘Trumpet Concerto’. During layovers in New York, Sager spent her free time in Harlem. The respect with which she was regarded by her fellow musicians, and trumpeters in particular, can be determined from the fact that she was welcome to sit in with musicians such as Oran ‘Hot Lips’ Page and Rex Stewart.

When the Leonard tour ended, Sager quit the band and went to live in Los Angeles, determined at first to engage in factory work to further the war effort. However, more musical work beckoned, including a spell with the band led by Johnny Richards. Sager considered this to be a highlight of her career, although it took a lot of determination to convince Richards and the other sidemen that she could do the job at least as well as any man. She also worked with tenor saxophonist Peggy Gilbert And The Victory Belles, did studio work in films and on radio, and opened her own teaching academy in Hollywood. Sager was briefly with the International Sweethearts Of Rhythm, observing to Placksin, ‘I never had so much fun in my life.’

At the end of World War II, Sager worked as a music therapist with hospitalized soldiers. In the 50s, she was a member of the band led by Ina Ray Hutton, played in Charlie Barnet’s band and succeeded Bobby Hackett in Katharine Dunham’s band. In the mid- and late 60s, she led an all-female novelty band, the Frivolous Five. Meanwhile, she continued to teach. Sager continued to be active in music into the 90s, vividly recounting her experiences to writer Sherrie Tucker in Swing Shift. A strikingly gifted player and teacher, Sager’s long career brought her considerable admiration from her peers, male and female. It is a sad reflection upon the attitude of the music business and society in general that a musician with this degree of talent should have remained so relatively little known to the world at large. Had she been a man, she would undoubtedly have been fêted, and extensively recorded.