Gender issues for some are simply passé. Maria Schneider recalls an interviewer asking her what it was like to be a woman composer. Finding the question nonsensical, she asked him “How does it feel to be a male journalist?” Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen knew there was resistance but “I thought I could conquer the world.” Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington got her union card at the age of 10 and has been putting, in Herbie Hancock’s words, “testosterone in sound” ever since. Thanks to her genius, he believes today’s drummer can have a “feminine aspect in the way they play.”

Chaikin wisely uses the legendary Harlem photograph from 1958 of the male jazz greats — spotlighting Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams (the only two women included in that assembly), as a graphic kickoff opening to her documentary. A new group portrait from 2008, produced with so many of today’s working women musicians, is the perfect counterpart for the closing frame. It’s a touching way to bring the whole business full circle.

Perhaps in not wanting to overlook the key players in this drama, Chaikin has delivered a full cornucopia of a cast, and it’s a dizzying prospect for the viewer to remember them all. Credit should be given to the graphic design of Robin Spehar and visual effects by Tim Bowen, which helps immeasurably — along with the overlapping musical tapestry — in keeping the audience engaged. For the avid jazz fan, it’s worth a second or even third look. There’s a rich tidbit from the past or an irresistible riff of sound to educate and entertain with every viewing.

Pianist Geri Allen is eloquent about the role of jazz in today’s society: “I think jazz is a real clear metaphor about what’s best about humanity, the way we implement, the way we share and those kinds of things that happen in the best moments of music.”

Chaikin is no stranger to documentary filmmaking. Her interests were focused as a feminist and a concerned citizen on such topics as The Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist, a PBS documentary which won her an Emmy nomination. But did she ever think she would make a film like The Girls in the Band? She grew up in a musical family and her husband and son are both working musicians. “My musical life was very separate from film. I was just an audience in that world,” she said.

I think the viewers of this extraordinary tribute to women musicians would agree that here Chaikin is center stage in the magical universe of music.

(“The Girls in the Band” is enjoying a successful run at the Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles and is scheduled for a return engagement soon in New York and other venues. For further screening information, please visit

Players to Watch

Following are some of the comments I collected from a number of professional women jazz artists, kind enough to share their passion and insights on the subject of women musicians. They are a dynamic and diverse assembly, composed of jazz violinist Sara Caswell, baritone saxophonist Claire Daly, tenor saxophonist Jessica Jones, bassist Mary Ann McSweeney, bassist Nicki Parrott and trombonist Deborah Weisz.

All these players have performed extensively and garnered impressive awards on the national and international scene. Caswell has recently released a new CD with her vocalist sister Rachel, entitled Alive in the Singing Air. Daly is a six-time winner of the Downbeat Critic’s Poll, with a new album, Monk—The Claire Daly Quintet. Listeners can enjoy Live at the Freight featuring Jessica Jones and pianist Mark Taylor. Bassist McSweeney performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival at the tender age of 16 and is currently on the faculty at Lincoln Center’s New York Jazz Workshop. Parrott has enjoyed a long career as a bassist and has been featured on 12 albums, primarily with the Venus label from Japan. Weisz and her trombone traveled the globe from 1987 to 1994 with Frank Sinatra, and her trio continues to play and record in many venues.

GALO: Judy Chaikin’s recent film, The Girls in the Band took much of its inspiration from the early big band era of the ’30s and ’40s. Who were your heroes or heroines that formed your own career?

Sara Caswell: [Though Caswell credits violinist Josef Gingold and jazz artist David Baker as her heroes, it is her family that rates highest venturing into jazz violin.] I couldn’t have asked for a more inspiring family, through my mom’s practicing with me daily for 12 years straight, my dad’s applause and cheers at every concert and my sister’s “no fear” attitude in her studies of jazz cello, piano and voice.

Claire Daly: The first musicians I heard were all men. I didn’t even think about it until I saw Marian McPartland in a concert and I was fascinated to see someone in a dress on stage.

Jessica Jones: [Her heroes growing up were all men, i.e. Monk, Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane, among others, but she actually found inspiration in photographer and author Valerie Wilmer.] The book As Serious As Your Life by Wilmer hipped me to the awareness that women have been a major support of this music. I later came to appreciate the music of Mary Lou Williams and her feeding musicians and having jams at her house.

Mary Ann McSweeney: My high school band director… He had an amazing improvisation class that I cut math class to get to. He also encouraged me and my fellow students to start a small jazz quartet which we named The Satin Dolls. He sent us out to play events and weddings, and we learned a lot about how to play a gig.

Nicki Parrott: I grew up in Australia and my first contact with jazz was watching jazz videos, anyone from Miles Davis to Louis Armstrong. Paul Chambers was the first bassist that really inspired me. The first one I really studied with was Ray Brown. I was a sponge for American jazz.

Deborah Weisz: [Jazz trombonists were high on Weisz’s list, such as J.J. Johnson, Carl Fontana, and Jack Teagarden, but later, Melba Liston.] I became a HUGE fan of Liston’s once I heard her playing and the music she composed and arranged.

GALO: How did your interest in music, and jazz in particular, begin?

Caswell: Music has been present in my life for as long as I can remember. By the time I was eight-years-old, I was studying classical, baroque, and jazz violin from three separate teachers as well as piano from my mom, eventually gravitating to the creativity and freedom inherent in jazz.

Daley: My first exposure to jazz was a big band concert at age 12 at the Westchester County Center. The music made me stand up and scream.

Jones: There was an amazing elementary school jazz band at my school in the 1960s. I wanted to play drums but started as a classical pianist and started saxophone in eighth grade when I realized that I wasn’t hearing any jazz in my piano playing and that all the jazz I was hearing on the radio had saxophone in it.

McSweeney: [She first heard live jazz at the Concord Jazz Festival as a freshman in high school when her band director and his family took her there.] I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. All the musicians were laughing and talking to each other during the tunes. In a symphony you can’t really do that.

Parrott: As far back as I can remember, [it was] my parents. [On more reflection, Parrott mentioned her older sister Lisa, a sax player, as a major inspiration.] Classical music was huge in our family, so I studied piano and flute from the age of four. Piano is still one of my first loves as a complete instrument. And the sound of the bass, the acoustic bass…from the age of 14, I started teaching myself and that became my passion.

Weisz: My father had the Dave Brubeck record Time Out and I clearly remember hearing Paul Desmond’s sound and really liking that, so when I began playing the trombone at 10, I would mess around, trying to create different sounds all the time, rather than just play the notes on a page of music.

GALO: Did you feel any resistance along the way as a female musician? Did that have any influence on what instrument you decided to embrace?

Caswell: The resistance I’ve experienced has had less to do with my gender, and more to do with my instrument. The support I received from family and friends was not universal, especially from the jazz community where the violin was seen as a misfit.

(Interview continued on next page)