Women instrumentalists have made major contributions to American jazz, and this film captures many of the lost stories, from the early 1920s to the 1970s, including the development of numerous all-female jazz ensembles. Join Peggy Gilbert, Marian McPartland, Carline Ray, Quincy Jones, Jane Sager and many others in this important remembering of our musical past.
Using historical photos, provocative and often wildly humorous interviews with musicians, big band leaders, jazz authors and historians, this textured film by documentarian Kay D. Ray from Seattle is balanced with rare recordings and forgotten footage, both television and film. Like the stories of those who made it, the music is always engaging, often uplifting, and sometimes heartrending.
Kay recently drove all the way from Seattle to drop off her film copy. We took the chance to ask her a few burning questions:
Vancouver International Women in Film Festival: Tell us a bit about the woman behind the movie: Who is Kay D. Ray?
Kay D. Ray: I love meeting people, finding out their stories, and searching for archival footage and photos to help their stories come alive. That’s what motivated me for the years of work with this film and other individual films on movers and shakers like Anne Gould Hauberg and Ernestine Anderson and what led to my film work with museums including; Seattle Museum of History and Industry, Experience Music Project, “Jumpin With The Big Bands” exhibit with Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture with assistance from the Smithsonian, and The History of the Microcomputer in Albuquerque’s Museum of Natural History. I’m honored when people share their time, a bit of their lives and their stories with me. I have to be honest in the their portrayals, the histories and make fascinating and compelling films.
VIWIFF: What inspired you to tell the history of instrumental women in jazz (in the USA)?
KDR: A colleague’s husband told me his mother was a jazz guitarist. I had studied jazz at the University of Washington and had not heard of any women jazz musicians, let alone a jazz guitarist. They showed me a film clip from Art Ford’s Jazz Party TV show of Mary Osborne playing a big beautiful Gibson guitar with a male jazz quartet and backing up Billie Holiday. She was jammin’ and I loved her guitar!
I began to write a film just about Mary, then as I continued my research, I was referred to more and more women musicians. Dr. Sherrie Tucker was doing her PhD thesis on women big bands, and gave me numerous women’s names and contacts. So I kept writing grants, having fundraisers, going around the United States filming interviews with dozens of women who spent their lives as musicians both in all-girl bands and with men’s bands. I kept waiting to find that someone else had done this film, but no one had at that time. I felt obligated to continue the work after these women opened up their lives, their time and stories with me.
VIWIFF: Many of the interviewees are witnesses of long-gone eras. You recorded their interviews between 1997 and 2001 – what technique did you use to keep track of all your shot footage?
KDR: After going to film school at Vancouver Film school (in the days where we still shot on film!), I moved to LA and worked in the film industry. One Vancouver instructor was militant on learning the paperwork needed on a film set. It is that diligence and learning script supervisory skills which made me have notebooks filled with lists, schedules, contracts, etc. and also allowed me to get a job in the industry within days of arriving in LA.
VIWIFF: The film is a treasure box of archive material, especially old clips of female musicians. Tell us about the process of finding the clips, then selecting and digitizing them.
KDR: It was a total treasure hunt to find the film footage. I began my search of film footage with the standard sources; the Library of Congress and the National Archives. I then contacted individual archives like Mark Cantor. In many women’s closets, I found film outtakes of women playing in Europe in 1928, 16mm home movies from the 1940s, and 1950s as they romped on USO [United Service Organizations Inc., a private, non-profit organization that provides morale and recreational services to members of the U.S. military] worldwide tours and many reel to reel tape recordings. The sources ranged from 16mm and 35mm prints, to really bad VHS copies. I had to get them all transferred to Beta SP (what most of my interviews were shot on) and into a AVID editing system. Then with the last cut of the film, we had to then transfer the AVID files to a Final Cut system. I owe my editor and Associate Producer Catherine Wadley my first born child for the years and dedication to make all these transitions work.
VIWIFF: How expensive and time-intensive was the process of music rights clearances?
KDR: I met with Jean Bach about 15 years ago. She produced the film A Great Day In Harlem. She told me to start the rights clearance process as soon as possible. She was so right. As I met and interviewed different women over the years, I found rare recordings in their closets; from live performances to TV demos, from 78-records, LP’s to cassettes and CD’s. I then had to see which songs were in the Public Domain and if they weren’t, I had to find replacements or deal with music rights clearance attorneys and contact the music writers and production companies. I worked to see if anything could be used under the “fair use” argument, tried for the “most favored nations” agreement, then paid the big bucks to the major labels for which I couldn’t get a reasonable agreement. The limitations imposed by some of the major labels because of the money they are asking, will not allow for a theatrical release or video on demand.
VIWIFF: You named your film Lady Be Good, after the Broadway musical by George and Ira Gershwin. Why did you pick this title?
KDR: The name should be Ladies Be Great! to honor all these women pioneers. But I wanted a bit of name recognition so I chose the Gershwin song “O, Lady Be Good” with the descriptor Instrumental Women In Jazz to describe what is the film’s content in a few words.
VIWIFF: The history of instrumental women in jazz follows different eras, starting at the end of the 19th century, and also reflects on social issues such as equality and racism. What surprised you the most during the research?
KDR: The really surprising issue, which kept resurfacing over the years of interviews and research, was the number of women who were successful musicians making music and jazz a viable career and that hardly anyone had heard of them. The numbers of women in the music industry during these decades is staggering and really rewrites the history of Jazz in the American musical lexicon.
Another issue was the integrated women’s groups travelling in the 1940s all over the US. The black women from the north faced a racism never before endured when they were south of the Mason Dixon Line and the white women had to pass as mulattoes. One story not in the film is that the sheriff same to one gig to arrest the white gals for playing in a black club. The girls ran for a train and escaped capture.
VIWIFF: I saw you launched a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising over $25 K US. What other avenues did you choose to finance your documentary?
KDR: I came from the old school of fundraising which includes, asking your friends and family for money, asking friends who have friends with deep pockets then asking them to open up their homes for cocktail parties and their check books for donations. I also become fairly successful in writing grants for the film.
VIWIFF: You had to cut 40 min from your first cut to match broadcast length. Will there be a follow up film to the theatrical, 80-minute version?
I actually had a three-hour cut. That was cut to two hours, then cut to this current length of 80 minutes. I had to cut most of the women’s stories who were under 70 years of age. Now I’m looking at using all those interviews from 10+ years ago with women like Jane Ira Bloom, Stacy Rowles, Amy Denio, Ann Patterson of Maiden Voyage and look at the issues, which they were concerned about then. I’d then interview some of the same women and some younger gals on the jazz scene today and see if they still have some of same issues, see if there are obstacles with bookings, production and distribution and see if the glass ceiling still exists. For copyright issues, I think this will be a 30-minute short!!!
VIWIFF: Has it won awards? If yes, which ones?
KDR: I feel honoured that audiences are receptive to the film which includes film festivals, film centres, jazz societies, and libraries. The film won Best Music Documentary Film in the Queen City Film Festival with the Allegany Allied Arts in Maryland. I have other festivals approaching so stay tuned!!
Thank you for the conversation!
Q&A by Katja De Bock
Lady Be Good: Instrumental Women in Jazz screens Friday March 6th at 6:30 PM. Tickets include access to a jazz reception with performer Jillian Lebeck.
Kay D. Ray will be in attendance.