Count Basie, Dizzie Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Norris Hilton, Gerry Mulligan, Lester Young, Theolonius Monk…
These are just a few of the names that come instantaneously attached to what many would consider the Masters of Jazz.
But Jessie Bailey, Roz Cron, Peggy Gilbert, Carline Ray, Billie Rogers, Viola Smith, Jerrie Thill, Helen Woods…
These are the forgotten names of females that documentarian Judy Chaikin wants to shed light on her incredibly live-spirited film, The Girls in the Band, playing for two screenings at the Art Theatre.
The film, a deftly crafted montage of rare photos and footage, is massive in its breadth, as it spans from the 1930s–exploring vaudeville-style groups like The Fayettes and The Ingenues–all the way to the present day to show where the women of jazz are today. All the while, the doc weaves in the inherent sexism and racism that not only ruled society, but was equally engrained in specifically the jazz industry.
“I come from a jazz background,” Chaikin said. “I was married to a jazz musician who recently passed away, my brothers are musicians, my mother was a songwriter, I played the trumpet as a kid… Despite all the exposure to jazz, I never thought any women in big bands were working as musicians.”
Called the “unwritten law,” women were entirely barred from performing. The move not only coaxed the fragile ego of male musicians, but its ugly head has persisted even into contemporary times: Girls comes on the heels of I Stand Corrected, the QFilms documentary screened last year that showcased the gender transition of famed jazz bassist Jennifer Leitham, who is also featured in Girls.
Chaikin soon discovered that the unwritten law wasn’t necessarily an entire abolishment of women after a friend informed her of a woman who was a drummer in a band during the ’30s and ’40s. This soon became the rabbit hole that Chaikin explored for her seventh documentary across the course of eight years.
And the most stunning thing for Chaikin was that her adventure dispelled–overwhelmingly–her belief that women were not working musicians.
“I didn’t know about them. Nobody else knew about them,” Chaikin said. “The sheer amount of women was overwhelming–and it’s what kept me going. I kept finding these beautiful people and it made me yearn for more.”
Even more, Chaikin’s own passion for the subject intertwines with her take on documentary filmmaking: eschewing the black-and-white take that subjects be approached with little entertainment value.
“I still think the world is sexist, racist, homophobic–you name it,” Chaikin said. “We’re trying to come out of the Dark Ages and these things shed slowly, so naturally a little sugar helps the medicine go down. And I’m dealing with music… Kinda hard for it not to be entertaining.”
And hopefully the unknown girls of the many bands, orchestras, and performance groups will do just the same.
The Girls in the Band will play at the Art Theatre, located at 2025 E 4th Street, on Sunday, August 11 at 11AM. A second screening will occur on Saturday, August 24, followed by a Q&A featuring Judy Chaikin, producer Nancy Kissock, and big-band member Ann Patterson.
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