Interview with THE GIRLS IN THE BAND director Judy Chaikin
Take a look at any of the many Billboard charts this week, and the number of women topping the charts, from pop to rock, hip-hop to country, can suggest that such chart domination has been anything but normal. In tribute of the many female artists who paved the way for those today, THE GIRLS IN THE BAND (2011) tells the poignant, untold stories of female jazz and big band instrumentalists and their fascinating, groundbreaking journeys from the 1920s to today. This eye-opening, crowd-pleasing documentary surveys some of the all girl bands—and the women sax and horn players and drummers—who found themselves marginalized by their male counterparts for decades.
"[THE GIRLS IN THE BAND] has received rave reviews around the country and won audience awards at numerous film festivals, said Curator of Film John Ewing. "Its subject is also interesting and important—and a long time coming.”
The New York Times calls the film "everything a worthwhile documentary should be, and then some; engaging, informative, thorough and brimming with delightful characters." Directed, produced, and written by Judy Chaikin, the film aims to educate and inspire both women and men about the trials and triumphs from the early days of the ladies of jazz music. It premieres at the Cleveland Museum of Art on Friday, November 15 at 7 p.m. and again on Sunday, November 17 at 1:30 p.m.
We caught up with Chaikin for some insight on the making of and messaging behind THE GIRLS IN THE BAND.
CMA: Could you tell us why this was the time to create a documentary about women in jazz, and why it's an important addition to documenting the history of women in music?
CHAIKIN: The idea for the film came to me from a friend who told me she had met a woman who was a drummer with big bands in the 1940s. I found that hard to believe because I grew up in a family of musicians and I had played the trumpet in junior high school. I stopped playing because I never saw a woman in any big bands. As it turned out, that woman drummer had played with "all girl bands." A little research into that world was all that was needed to convince me that there was a great story for a documentary film. In fact, research into the history of jazz will immediately reveal the lack of women who have been taken seriously and considered as part of the jazz world. As we worked on the film we realized that we were capturing a history that was about to disappear. Many of the women in the film have passed away in the past few years, and we're fortunate to have gotten them just in time.
What were some of the biggest challenges with putting this work together?
Raising the funding for the film and finding footage on the women. Since most of the women had been left out of the history books there was very little recorded on film of their performances. It took five researchers five years to come up with all the footage. Some of it was found in Europe where jazz and female musicians were more widely accepted. As far as the fundraising, we received a few generous grants that got us started from Herb Alpert, Hugh Hefner, and our Executive Producer, Mike Greene. The rest was raised by endless rounds of crowdfunding, e-mail solicitations, and desperate begging.
A number of the artists featured in the film are not necessarily household jazz names, proof that the catalog of work goes far behind who made it on the radio. Can you tell us a little bit about the process in selecting who to include in the documentary?
We interviewed many more women than those appearing in the film. Our choice was based on the level of talent they brought to the music world and how influential their work was. We always felt that if the women we chose couldn't musically go toe-to-toe with their male counterparts then the story we were telling wouldn't hold up. We were really pleased to find women whose work was exceptional and whose talents, had they been men, would have been widely celebrated. There's another component to selecting who to put on camera and it has to do with the personality of your subject. They have to come across with vitality and energy in order to keep an audience engaged. Fortunately, because these women had performance backgrounds, the majority of them were great on camera.
Cleveland has some deep rooted music history and a fanbase to match. How does it feel to have your film screened at the Cleveland Museum of Art?
There's a lesser known but equally vital cadre of jazz lovers in Cleveland. We played at the Cleveland Film Festival last year, and I found the audiences exceptional. Their level of interest and knowledge about jazz was well above par. Our screenings were packed and the Q&A's very intelligent. I often cite it as one of the best festival experiences we've had. As far as jazz is concerned, Cleveland rocks!
What is the main thing you hope audiences will take away after seeing THE GIRLS IN THE BAND?
A realization of how the work of women is marginalized and what a loss that is to all of us...Our greatest satisfaction will come if this film can inspire a new crop of young female jazz musicians to stand on the shoulders of those early pioneers and to reach for the stars.
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