Monday, July 25, 2016

New Interview With Singer Jane Monheit

Please enjoy this excerpt from my recent interview with singer Jane Monheit for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Jane's most recent album The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald is excellent, a truly adventurous program of newly arranged classics made famous by the great Ella Fitzgerald. 

Jane Monheit is one of the 37 musicians interviewed in my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz
CHRIS BECKER: Ella Fitzgerald was so many things to so many people. Tell me who she was to you.
JANE MONHEIT: She was one of the true originators of the art form. She was one of the first singers to really take the influence of the instrumentalists around her and bring them into her singing. But more importantly, in addition to all of the technical things she did as a singer — the swinging, the scatting, and all of that — she sang with such great warmth. I know a lot of people who knew and worked with Ella, and they all say she was like that in person.
When were you first introduced to her music?
I was at home with my mom. My mother was a singer and because I loved to sing, she was very conscious of playing singers for me that I could learn from. Little kids tend to copy. She knew I was going to be singing along with records and wanted to make sure they were singers with good technique. I remember her putting on Ella for me, and saying to me, “Listen to this!” and me just losing my little mind over how beautiful it was.
Was it just the sound of her voice that moved you?
Yes! I remember that specifically, the sound of her voice.
You have described Ella’s songbook albums as “biblical.” Why are those particular albums so important to you?
As a child, they were what I chose to focus on. I don’t know why. The songbook albums are more of the pop music of their time. She’s not doing a ton of improvisation, so they were wonderful records to learn these songs from. But Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book, which is by far much more of a jazz record than the other ones, has always been my favorite. She’s looser on that record, and she’s singing more jazz.
In Ella’s later recordings, one hears so much joy in her singing, but there’s also wisdom, and even some sadness in the material as well. Could you connect to that?
Ella was someone who was able to sing with complete and utter sincerity, but without any histrionics. That’s a place I need to get to! [Laughs.] She was a total sage. That’s the mark of any great singer, to be able to distill life experiences into a song and help people understand other people’s experiences. Ella was brilliant at that, but she did it in such a calm, collected way. That’s something I do not know how to do. For all of her influence on me, I sing in this crazy emotional way. Ella was able to sing something so calmly, and you would believe her. I can’t do that yet.
Quincy Jones has spoken about the “open wound” that pushed Ella, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, and other singers to greatness. Is that what you’re talking about as well? Having those painful experiences and then being able to speak about and share them through singing?
You want to use your experience to help provide some catharsis for others. But I think it’s the same with your joyful experiences. It doesn’t have to be just the things that hurt us. As a singer, you get used to having your heart on your sleeve. It’s about accessing all of it, and having it at the ready. I always tell my husband, if I’m being overly emotional or overly dramatic, “No, no, no. This is cool. It makes me good at my job.” [Laughs.]

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Interview With Judy Chaikin, director of The Girls in the Band

Director Judy Chaikin
Here's an excerpt from my recent interview with filmmaker Judy Chaikin, director of the award-winning documentary The Girls in the Band. Judy's film was an important source of inspiration and historical reference for me while writing my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz. You rent or buy Judy's film from iTunes or order the DVD from The Girls in the Band website
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.