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.