JAZZ IS GENERALLY perceived to be a male-dominated musical genre. But even casual fans may have noticed a recent, growing presence of women in the field. This would come as no surprise for a person in the coveted millennial demographic, whose musical selections are often determined more by algorithms than old school music critics. Esperanza Spalding playing bass and singing the 1930 standard “On the Sunny Side of the Street” at the White House? Why not! Saxophonist Grace Kelly playing a funked-up rendition of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert? Awesome! But for those of us born before 1990, and especially before the reemergence of the women’s rights movement in the mid-1960s, the acknowledgment, celebration, and employment of women instrumentalists signals something close to a sea change in the world of jazz.
How much of a sea change? Check out the trailer for Judy Chaikin’s award-winning documentary The Girls in the Band, which opens with a title card quoting celebrated jazz writer George T. Simon: “Only God can make a tree, and only men can play jazz.” It then follows with Texas-born Clora Bryant’s swinging trumpet blast, and a montage featuring vintage film clips of drummer Viola Smith, saxophonist Vi Redd, and trumpeter Ernestine “Tiny” Davis — all of whom had active careers. Simon’s belief was not unique, however; over the years, sexist historians have shaped how jazz is documented for and presented to the general public. The fact is, women musicians, both singers and instrumentalists, have been vital contributors to the development of this music since its beginnings in New Orleans — a fact made evident throughout Chaikin’s entertaining and enlightening 88-minute film.
Chaikin skillfully unfolds an alternate history of jazz from the late 1930s to the present day through dozens of interviews, with such pioneers as saxophonist and bandleader Peggy Gilbert, who as far back as the 1920s was a powerful advocate for women musicians, and pianist and composer Marian McPartland, perhaps best known for her long-running public radio show, Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. Given the number of women interviewed in the film — including surviving members of the first racially integrated all-woman big band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, which enjoyed a great deal of popularity during the late 1930s and ’40s (they even traveled overseas to perform for US troops during World War II) — it’s amazing to consider how little has been done to document women in jazz. Notable examples do exist, such as author and musicologist Sherrie Tucker’s book, Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s; Sally Placksin’s American Women in Jazz; and Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen by Linda Dahl. But for the majority of people, including many professional jazz men and women, the stories and events recounted in The Girls in the Band are revelatory, and speak to the impact gender discrimination has on our understanding and appreciation of the United States’s only true musical art form.
Chaikin was compelled to tell this story, in part, because the untold struggles of these instrumentalists mirrored her own in the film industry. With few women directors for role models, and even fewer opportunities to direct, Chaikin, a second-generation artist who grew up in Los Angeles, initially pursued a career as an actress, dancer, and comedian as “a pathway” to directing films. She went on to receive multiple awards for her film and television directing, including Emmy nominations for her PBS documentary Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist (1987) and the documentary Building on a Dream: The NoHo Art Project (2004). Since its release in 2013, The Girls in the Band has won several film festival awards and continues to screen across the Unites States, Canada, and Europe.
Sitting in the darkened theater at the end of a screening for The Girls in the Band in Houston, what I felt, and sensed from the audience, was powerful, but difficult to explain. Pianist Herbie Hancock describes wiping away “tears of joy” after seeing the film, and indeed, as the end credits rolled, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. The audience applauded, which rarely happens at a film showing outside of festival screenings, and that reaction may bode well for the future of jazz. “It leaves people feeling some sense of hope, and that’s exactly what I wanted the film to do,” says Chaikin. She also wanted to bring awareness — and with awareness, comes change.
CHRIS BECKER: The initial spark for the film was your discovery of a female drummer who played in big bands during World War II, correct?
JUDY CHAIKIN: Yes: Jerrie Thill, the composer and producer. Alison Freebairn-Smith first told me about her. Jerrie was active in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and had an all-girl band. She ended up being a drummer out here in Los Angeles and played a regular gig at a place on Hollywood Boulevard for about 20 years. She died at 93, and had been playing up until the year before. She was pretty phenomenal.
Were you surprised to discover there was so little about women who played jazz?
It was totally surprising, and that was one of the things that really spurred me on. When I realized how many women there were, and that no one had paid any attention to them, that really got me going.
How did you start with your research for the film?
It started with learning about Jerrie Thill, and then talking to various musicians I knew who gave me a couple of other names like saxophonist Roz Cron, who lived out here in Los Angeles and had been in the International Sweethearts of Rhythm; contemporaries like the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, who were big in New York, and also the all-female big band, Maiden Voyage, that was here in Los Angeles. I just started contacting these women and talking to them and one by one they started giving me other names, like Clora Bryant. One person led to another, and the story started to unfold.
What was the initial audience reaction?
The reaction was so surprising to me, because it covered such a wide audience: a lot of young female musicians literally came up to me crying afterward saying, “I can’t thank you enough. I thought I was the only one!” Older people who were big band fans said, “This is phenomenal. I can’t believe this. I had never heard of these women!” And then professional musicians, a lot of them said, “Boy, this is shame that these women are not known, and that I don’t know about them. They were so fantastic.” So the sense of wonder was across the board.
One of your earliest screenings was in Dubai. What was the response there to these women musicians?
The screening in Dubai was a little strange. It was an outdoor screening on the beach, and people were just sort of wandering around like they were at a rock concert. [Laughs.] But people came up afterward and said they enjoyed it.
The greatest overseas screening that I attended was in Sweden. The film screens somewhere in Sweden almost every other week. They absolutely adore it. It’s playing on television as well, and we keep getting requests for it. When I was there, it played at a film festival, and it played at a college, and it played in a theater. The response was fantastic.
I think one of the reasons for that is because a lot of the women in the early years of jazz, who could not have careers in the United States, went to Europe and had careers there. In some of the places where the film showed, these women were known. Generally, there is such a big interest in jazz in Europe, so much more than there is here. You walk through public places and jazz is playing, in stores, in restaurants — it’s always jazz you hear.
Dr. Billy Taylor, the late musician and composer, and Woody Herman, who is also now deceased, are both in the film. These men, in different ways, were strong advocates for women in the bandstand and providing equal opportunities for women jazz.
Has your film helped to open any dialogue between jazz men and women — either performers or educators?
Not being a musician myself, and not being in the studios having face-to-face contact with the men in the business, I don’t know about that dialogue. What I know is from hearsay. The men I know have said to me how wonderful it was that I brought this to their attention. That’s the only thing I can go on.
Herbie Hancock is also in the film, and his hiring of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington was really major. [In the late 1980s, after late-night stints in the house bands on television’s The Arsenio Hall Show and the Quincy Jones–produced Vibe talk show hosted by Sinbad, Carrington helped conceptualize Hancock’s 2002 Future 2 Future tour, and contributed to Hancock’s 1998 Grammy-winning album, Gershwin’s World.]
That was a really big deal. There are more women now showing up in the big bands on the late-night television shows. There was a woman on Dancing With the Stars in the house orchestra. After 17 seasons, the Dancing With the Stars orchestra was fired and replaced by recordings to “attract a younger demographic,” despite being one of the most watched shows. The presence of women is beginning to be seen. I don’t know if we did it, or if these women had just been working so hard that they finally got there, but it’s not that unusual anymore to see a woman in a band.
Some younger musicians may be reluctant to speak out against gender disparity for fear of not getting hired. Was there any reluctance from the women you approached for the film?
I did not encounter women who were afraid to speak up. They were all pretty forthcoming. They didn’t indulge in male bashing, which I appreciated. I think they felt free to say what they had to say, both younger and older musicians.
There is a generation of musicians coming up who feel jazz is the great equalizer — either you can play it or you can’t. It’s not about gender.
That may be happening at the college level. I’m not sure if it’s permeating into the professional world yet. It will probably take a little more time to get there. The jazz profession is still pretty much a man’s world, but I think things are changing as these young women come up in the college arena, and they show they’ve got the stuff.
First of all, we have to look at jazz in the proper light in the United States. It occupies such a minor position in the cultural world. It’s tragic, but true. So we’re already looking at a teeny-tiny piece of the musical pie. Within that teeny-tiny piece, there are incremental changes. I wouldn’t say there’s any big revolution that has happened, just a level of awareness. The awareness comes first, and then, after a long period of time, the change comes. We’re in the period of awareness right now. I don’t think real change has happened yet. But hopefully, it’s coming.
You were initially interested in acting before you began directing.
Right. I always wanted to be a director, but women were not allowed to be directors. The only woman I ever saw who was a director was Ida Lupino [who helmed film and TV projects during the late 1940s through the 1960s], and she got there by being an actress. So I figured, well, maybe that’s a pathway, and I had a bit of a career in the movies, on television, and on the stage.
I loved being involved in film, and I could see that behind the scenes in film, there were jobs for women. So I turned myself into a crewperson. I started volunteering on films, and eventually got a job as a second unit director. I worked my way up in the film business in that way. But there was no direct path for me, at that time especially. After the women’s movement, I got really involved in all kinds of organizations to promote women directors. I am one of the founders of the Alliance of Women Directors, which is now a fairly big and powerful organization.
Has your film inspired young women who want to direct?
Well, the reason I had such empathy toward these women is because it’s exactly the same fight that I face as a woman director. I’ve been in this business a long, long time, and things have started to change for women in the directing world, too, but very, very slowly. It would be hard for anyone to say there is equality in that world. Women are already inspired to make films; it’s the opportunity to make films that is not available to us.
Independent film productions have provided those opportunities for women to make films, which I’m seeing among jazz musicians starting their own independent labels and getting their music heard maybe to a greater extent than ever before.
That’s absolutely true. If it wasn’t for the way the world has gone technologically, I think we’d still be in the dark ages. All the new advancements have allowed easier access to the tools you need to make a film. And because of this, a lot more women have been able to do just that.
Are there some women jazz artists you are especially excited about now? Perhaps musicians you met while making the film or showing it to audiences?
I’ve met so many up-and-coming young women. There’s a trumpet player named Angeleisha Rogers in New York who’s very exciting. There’s pianist, Lindsey Hundley, who has a trio out here, and is also an exciting performer. People keep sending me clips of young girls and women all over the world that are really phenomenal. I’m hoping that one of them can really break through in the same way Esperanza Spalding has.
With so little of the history of women in jazz in film, The Girls in the Band is a great tool, especially for those who teach music. Is it available to educators?
We’ve done an educational version of the film that includes not only the full-length film, but there are also bonus tracks on it designed specifically for educators, including a master class by keyboardist and singer Patrice Rushen. Michael Greene, who was the head of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and is the executive producer of the film, does a master class on the business of music. So we have this incredible educational package.
We’ve also done a collector’s edition for the home viewer and that has a whole bunch of bonuses on it, including a 20-track record album. All of these versions are available on our website.
Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner is a major funder, and one of the producers, of your film. When Hugh’s name appears in the credits, people in the audience are generally surprised.
I know! Hefner used to have a jazz television show (Playboy’s Penthouse), and he produces the biggest jazz festival in all of Los Angeles (the Playboy Jazz Festival, now produced in association with the Los Angeles Philharmonic by FestivalWest, Inc.) at the Hollywood Bowl — a two-day jazz festival. He’s hired a lot of women musicians for the festival. I’m always amazed by it. He hired the entire DIVA Jazz Orchestra in 2008 and brought them here all the way from New York.
Was it Hugh, or his enterprise, who helped to finance your film?
Hugh personally. I first got a grant from Herb Alpert. I knew Herb personally. He had helped finance my film Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist. When I came to Herb with The Girls in the Band, I already had Michael Greene on board, and he said he would give me a matching grant. Within three months, I got the project to Hugh Hefner through the documentary community. I sent it to him, and the next day he said, “Yes,” and doubled the money Herb had set. That got the film off and running.
And he never interfered with the process one bit. He never gave me any bad notes. I sent him all the cuts of the film as it was going along, and he always loved it. At the end, he gave us a fundraising party at the Playboy mansion. He was really good to us.
That’s an encouraging note for filmmakers knowing they can hang on to the integrity of their work even when working with deep-pocket funders.
That is something you want to be careful of, that whoever you are getting into bed with monetarily isn’t calling the shots. Even my executive producer, Michael Greene, who put the first money into the film — who helped fund the eight-minute demo reel which is what got Herb and Hugh hooked — was very hands on. When it came down to a creative decision, if we didn’t see eye to eye, he always let me have my way. That was very important to me. I always considered what he had to say, and if I thought he was right, I would concede. But when it was something I believed in that he wasn’t really crazy about, he backed away. Those are the kind of people you need to work with.
Chris Becker is a writer and editor, with more than a decade of experience covering music, art, literature, entrepreneurship, and economics. As a composer, Becker has created music for dance, experimental video, and mixed-media installations.