I recently spoke with director Judy Chaikin after the film's New York City debut at the Lincoln Center. In the interview, Ms. Chaikin discusses her inspiration for the film, and how her own views of women musicianship evolved throughout its making.
Read full interview after the jump.
Girls on Your Turntable: “The Girls in the Band” just had its theatrical debut in New York. How has it been received?
Judy Chaikin: Well, it’s been pretty phenomenal. It’s been a dream come true for a film maker, to have your documentary film open in New York, get a center spread in the review section of the New York Times, get a brilliant review, and become “Pick of the Week”, and then open at the Lincoln Center Theater...there’s not much more you can ask for as a documentary film maker. So it’s pretty fantastic.
GOYT: I just read that Mayor Bloomberg has declared Friday, “Women in Jazz Day” in New York City, so that is pretty exciting as well.
JC: Yes, that is really exciting.
GOYT: Can you tell me about more about the film and what inspired this project?
JC: Well, the film is call “The Girls in the Band” because it’s about the history of women who were instrumentalists and played in big bands, swing bands, jazz bands and groups, everywhere from the 1920s to the present day. And most of them had never been heard of by anyone outside their immediate circle of friends, and certainly not by other musicians and when I started learning about these women, it was very eye opening to me because I’m from a family of musicians and studied music as a child, and I never knew that any such thing as women big bands or women who played instruments in big bands, or any of that. And the way that we started making it was a friend of mine called me up and told me that she had met a woman who was 90 years old who said she had been a drummer in a big band in the 30s. And I said, I don’t think so, there were never any women in any big bands except the singers. And she said, No, this woman said she was in a band, and that she had a band and had a complete career in the music business playing drums in big bands.
So I started to look it up, and when I found her, I found all of these other women who had played in her band. And then that led me to other women who had played in other women bands, and before I knew it, I was looking at a world that I never knew existed. And as it turns out, when we showed the film everyone else never knew they existed too, including musicians, music teachers, women instrumentalists of today, and the general public. So it’s like uncovering a hidden treasure in our culture.
GOYT: How did you go about locating the women in the film? And once you found them, were they receptive to participating in the film?
JC: Yes, I would say that 99% of them were receptive. A few didn’t want to be interviewed because they had such bitterness about what had happened to them and just kind of dismissed it from their lives. But there were many others that were very eager to have their stories told and felt the same way that I did, that it was a shame that nobody had ever heard about these incredible women. I mean, they weren’t just women who were having fun, and you know, having a nice hobby. They were incredibly talented, musically gifted women who just completely got passed by by all of the history books. So we researching everybody, and those that were still alive, we found ways to get in touch with them either by phone or by email or by letters sometime, and the receptivity toward what we were doing was terrific. So we started going out and interviewing them, and that was how we got the ball rolling.
GOYT: I’ve only recently, maybe five years ago or so, discovered the Sweethearts of Rhythm and I had a similar reaction. Once I started reading about them, it was kind of a domino effect, you just keep discovering more and more female jazz musicians from that era that no one has every heard of.
For those that aren’t familiar with these women, what are some of the standout musicians that you think we should know about?
JC: I think that Vi Redd is probably one of the most important musicians. She was a saxophone player who at the time many of her contemporaries thought that she was on a par with Charlie Parker. She was that inventive, that creative, and that talented. And her story is just so little known. Her work is so little known. It’s just amazing to me that people do not know about this woman who was a giant of jazz.
And of course there is Mary Lou Williams, who does have a lot of recognition, but most people generally do not know about her. So that was pretty amazing for me as well.
GOYT: I’m sure finding archival material was a challenge given there is so little documentation of these women in their day. Was it difficult to find footage for the film?
JC: It was very difficult because not only were the women not written down in the history books, they weren’t recorded the way that men were. So it was very difficult to find information on them. What we did find, a lot of it came from Europe because many of the women went to Europe to have careers, and in Europe they have much more acceptance and much more awareness of them, so there were clips of them performing in Europe. We found some stuff in the Smithsonian and in the National Archives that was very valuable, but was in terrible condition. Some of it we had to have the footage restored because it was unusable. You know, it was just a long, hard process. We had five researchers, and they worked for five years. So, it was not easy.
GOYT: Well, the hard work paid off in good results. I know the film is getting good reviews and hopefully it will reach a wide audience.
Now, you mentioned that you grew up in a musical household. How did you perception of female musicians change or evolve as you made this film?
JC: Well, you know like everybody else, I had a similar prejudice about women musicians because I felt they just weren’t as good as men, that they were kind of a novelty act and that’s why they had never reached the highest echelon in the music business. And when I started researching these women, I realized there was a systematic effort to keep them out of the music business, and that it had nothing to do with their talent. They were every bit as talented. But you know, you get that into your head as a woman you think that, “Well, maybe they’re right.” It’s a typical mental approach of the oppressed—to think that in some way, they are rightfully oppressed. It’s the, you know, Stockholm syndrome or whatever you would call it. But women began to believe that about themselves and it wasn’t true. And only now have they crossed the threshold where they don’t believe that anymore. Now they know they are as good as men as musicians.
GOYT: In talking to modern day musicians, how has that perception changed? Or do you feel there is still a sense of oppression and sexism in today’s music?
JC: Oh yes, it is still there. That will probably always be there to some degree. But it is certainly breaking down and there are certainly many young men that understand that the music is what is important and it is not the gender, it’s what is coming out of that horn. And it doesn’t matter that what’s coming out is from a man or woman playing it, it’s the music that counts.
GOYT: When talking to the older women musicians, is there any particular story that stood out? What was the most horrific story you heard?
JC: Well, I think of course the most horrific stories came from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm when they were traveling through the South and they not only faced oppression as women, but they faced oppression because they were black. And that was really horrific. And, you know, these were young girls. They were out there to play music and they were being treated in these horrible ways by racist cops and people who jeered at them and that was a horrible part of our history--horrible part of our society. And yet these young girls were brave enough just to go on doing what they did despite anything. And it shows you the bravery of these young women. It was remarkable.
GOYT: You began this project at a fortunate time, as many of these women are passing on. For those women still with us, what is their general attitude now that they have had fifty plus years to reflect on their experience? Did they offer any insight to what they might have learned from going through these hardships?
JC: I think most of them are really happy about the young women that are coming up, and they realize that the effort they put in in their lives was not in vain, that they paved the way for some really brilliant young women, and the young women are taking the ball and running with it. And nothing could make them more happy. Those who are still alive and are able to come to the screenings are so joyous at what they see of the young women. It’s really come full circle for them. So they are very happy.
Unfortunately it’s at the end of many of their lives and some of them have passed away since we have started, and others are not in physical condition to be able to attend the screenings. But we’ve got them all copies of the film so they can see what is was, and they are all happy about it.
GOYT: Are there any particular new artists that have stood out for these women?
JC: Well, there is the typical new artist like Esperanza Spalding. The young women on the scene—Anat Cohen is especially impressive to them. They love the Diva Jazz Orchestra. All of the women that played in big bands are just crazy about the Diva Jazz Orchestra. So there are quite a few. Hiromi Uehara, who is a Japanese pianist, is quite wonderful. So they are definitely interested in the young girls.
GOYT: As a long time listener of Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, it was always neat when she would connect with the younger musicians. There was such a mutual respect for each other, it was fun to just listen to them play and talk about their different experiences in music. So I can imagine conversations like that will continue as the film comes out and more people are able to see it.
And speaking of that, I know it is screening in New York this weekend and going to Los Angeles later this summer. Is it being picked up by many theaters, or what are the distribution plans for the rest of the year?
JC: We don’t know our distribution plans until we finish our LA run.
GOYT: Will there be a screening in the Bay Area?
JC: We sure want to have a screening in the Bay Area. We have so many requests from the Bay Area that I know eventually we will have to get up there. Anyone that wants to follow us can join our mailing list by going to our website, which is www.thegirlsintheband.com, and there is a place to contact us and we will let you know when the film is coming in your direction.
GOYT: Thank you for your time.