Forget Me Not: Girls in the Band Documentary Rights Wrongs

October 3, 2017
A feature length documentary about some of jazz history’s unsung heroines screens for free this month, part of the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival.

In 1982, when R’n’B singer, jazz pianist and composer Patrice Rushen sang “I want you to remember” in her Grammy-nominated chart-topper ‘Forget Me Nots’, she wasn’t singing about the countless talented female instrumentalists who came before her and were ostracised because of their gender. Though focusing largely on the 1930s to ‘50s, Rushen does however feature briefly in a documentary called Girls In The Band. The documentary shines a light on many otherwise forgotten women, who despite great opposition and obstacles, carved out their own career space in a male-dominated music world, using skill and determination.

Fast forward to 2017, and it could be argued that not a lot has changed. In music, as with many vocations, pay disparities and other equity issues persist. Debates about quotas and affirmative action continue, as do conversations about why so few of the top positions in the mainstream music industry are held by women, and how it is possible in the 21st century that a festival can announce a line-up that sees no female instrumentalists, DJs or even vocalists take to the stage.

“This is such a long hard battle that we can’t just focus on ‘winning’,” says filmmaker Judy Chaikin. “But, as Hilary Clinton says in her new book, ‘we must keep trying’.”

That’s something of a mantra for Emmy-nominated director Chaikin, who spent eight years making Girls In The Band.

“Who knows if true gender equality will ever happen, certainly not in my lifetime though I have been working for it for at least 40 years. I remember when my daughter was 12 she asked me why I was doing all the marching and rallying and I said: ‘So that you won’t have to do it when you grow up.’ Well she’s now a grown woman and she’s doing the same thing. We just need to keep pushing that rock up the hill an inch at a time. And yes, sometimes it slides back down.”

Chaikin, whose previous works include Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist, is a documentarian motivated by “righting wrongs” and exploring social injustices. In the stories uncovered for Girls In The Band she manages both.

“Among the saddest stories,” says Chaikin as she recalls the many years spent searching out subjects and interviewing them, “was when Clora Bryant, a brilliant trumpetiste, was fired from a weekly Los Angeles TV show because racist calls to the studio warned them to get the ‘N——r’ off the bandstand. Can you imagine how difficult it was for a woman to get a job like that to begin with? And then to be fired for the colour of your skin? I don’t know how Clora could still be the loving, ebullient woman she is today at the age of 90. That takes some personal fortitude that not too many people can lay claim to.”

Indeed, it’s the resilient older women like Bryant who leave an indelible mark on the viewer. Whether it’s their tales of touring in all female bands during segregation, or the remarkably supportive friendships forged, as Chaikin points out, for players like Bryant, gender wasn’t the sole source of discrimination.

“I have lived in the music world all my life so the injustice of race and class has been a part of my experience from a very early age. Race is a two-edged sword in the music world. For the most part, white musicians in the jazz world are in awe of the creativity and genius of the black musicians. Black musicians, while they may be revered in that limited sphere, always suffered the same racism their brothers of colour suffered in larger society. Add gender to that and you’ve really got a quagmire. Yet no matter what indignities the black musicians had to suffer, they embraced all other musicians equally, because in the end, all that really matters is your talent.”

Some of the women in your film must have been difficult to track down, do you have a particularly memorable story?

“I had heard about a female trumpet player named Billy Rogers who had played with the Woody Herman band but I couldn’t find any trace of her. Then one day quite near the end of the making of the film I got a call from a woman producer who had been very supportive of my work and she said: ‘I don’t know if you’re still interviewing anyone for the film but I was at a conference of women executives and got to talking with a woman who said her parents had been in the music business and her mother was a trumpet player, so I thought maybe you’d like to talk to her’.

“Over the eight years I was making the film I had received a lot of calls like this and most of the women turned out to have played in their high school marching band or some local dance band and weren’t really right for the film, so I never get too excited, but I am always curious. I asked: ‘Do you know her mother’s name?’ and she answered ‘Billy Rogers’. I started to cry. The interview with Billy was brilliant and we even found footage of her in a movie playing a trumpet solo with the Woody Herman band. Two years later she passed away. Sometimes you just get lucky.”

Towards the end of the film you “recreate” the famous jazz photograph ‘A Great Day In Harlem’. Tell us how you managed to orchestrate such a feat in the same location.

“The original photo ‘A Great Day in Harlem’ was shot in 1958 by Art Kane and featured 52 of the top jazz musicians in New York. Only three women appeared in the original photo: singer Maxine Sullivan, and pianists Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams. In the film we talk about how many other great women musicians were in New York at the time but were not included. It was our idea to recreate the photo with all women but to include three men. We chose Stanley Kay the founder of the Diva Jazz Orchestra, Dr. Billy Taylor, a longtime supporter of women musicians, and bass player Bobby Cranshaw who hired many women for his gigs.

“We didn’t have the budget to bring all the women to New York but many of them flew in on their own just to be in the photo. It took my producer, Nancy Kissock about three months to pull it all together and when she did, it accidentally fell on exactly the fiftieth anniversary of the day the first photo was shot. It was an amazing day bringing together some women who knew each other by reputation but who had never met, and many of revered idols of jazz with talented newcomers. At the final moment of the shoot the clouds that had been threatening all day burst open and sprinkled us with a light rain as if to signal the end of a blessed day. We all agreed it was a blessed day.”

The iconic 1958 ‘A Great Day in Harlem’ photo

As a female filmmaker, what are the three best bits of advice you have for any young women following their passion in a creative field?

“Never give up, never give up, never give up!”

‘The Girls In The Band’ screens for free, 7pm Monday October 9th at Foundry 616, Harris Street Ultimo. For more information on the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival, head to: siwjf.org

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