Asked to name a woman in jazz, most people would think of a vocalist like Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald. But local filmmaker Kay D. Ray has uncovered a hitherto unexplored history of female instrumentalists in her latest film Lady Be Good: Instrumental Women in Jazz, which plays SIFF on June 1 and 2, with Ray and co-producer Cathy Wadley scheduled to attend.
After attending film school in Vancouver B.C., Ray worked on low budget features, corporate films, commercials, and documentaries in Los Angeles for five years. She then returned to the Pacific Northwest, where she’s produced and directed film projects for the Museum of History and Industry, Experience Music Project, Spokane’s Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, and the Washington State Historical Society, as well as the films Corazon Contento: Then and Now, created for a special needs school in Nicaragua, and Ernestine Anderson: There Will Never Be Another You.
Lady Be Good has been a labor of love for Ray, who began working on the film in the ’90s. “I love meeting people, finding out their stories, and searching for archival footage and photos to help their stories come alive,” she says. It’s that determination to bring a story to life that makes Lady Be Good such a fascinating and compelling film.
What gave you the idea to make this film?
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.
Why do you think there hadn’t been a film on this subject before?
Because the subject was huge and ignored and the archival footage and music was scarce, many believed the subject didn’t warrant being part of the story of jazz history; the belief that “Women can’t play jazz.” And because the clearances were expensive.
I’m sure you didn’t expect you’d be working on this film for 20 years. Would you have taken it on if you knew that? What were the biggest obstacles?
I think the biggest obstacle was funding. I learned how to write grants and actually get some! Not something I ever wanted to learn, but as an independent, you have to learn to do everything. I want to especially thank all the individuals, and granting organizations that emotionally and financially supported me and this project. I really couldn’t have completed this film without them.
Because this was a part time project as I worked with the museum jobs and occasional corporate clients, this film took longer to complete than originally thought. Jean Bach, who produced A Great Day In Harlem told me 15 years ago to start my music clearances as soon as possible. She was so right. I cleared most of the music and film rights along the way but had to wait until the final film cut to go to the majors; Universal, EMI, Warner Chappell. Through an attorney in LA, I’ve finally finished, but they are outrageously expensive for an independent film and will limit my ability to distribute the film as much as I would like.
How did you go about finding your interviewees? What surprised you and what made you think, ‘wow, things haven’t changed for women musicians?’
I wrote the original proposal from my research from the books Stormy Weather by Linda Dahl, American Women In Jazz by Sally Placksin and Black Women in Orchestras and Bands by Dr. Antoinette Handy. From their histories, I began calling. Each woman I met, each historian I spoke with, led me to another woman and where they lived. The most surprising discovery was how many women were playing music in the 1930s,’40s and ’50s. Some of the obstacles that many of these women encountered still exist today—sexism, women rarely accepted in male big bands—although the scene has changed. You do see women on the bandstand more often now, and most people aren’t surprised. But the old boys network still exists in the educational system; very few women have university tenure in music departments.
I was delighted to meet 100-year-old New Orleans pianist Sadie Goodson who sang and played “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” for me; Aletra and Virtue Hampton, who were so close they finished each others sentences; and to have Marion McPartland play for me on her beautiful grand piano in her living room. At those moments, I thought “I love this job!” I really enjoyed meeting all these women who spent so much of their lives on the road doing what they loved to do. I was also fortunate to meet and interview Jesse Stone, Artie Shaw, Quincy Jones and Gerald Wilson.
You’ve amassed a lot of material over the years while you were working on the film; what your plans for it?
I would love to create a traveling museum exhibit with the records, recordings, posters, photos, concepts from early days of jazz in the 1920s, the family bands, all girl bands, women in men’s bands, the USO, an interactive radio blindfold test—choosing women vs men bands—use some of the contemporary women musician interviews talking about the glass ceiling, and where jazz is going today. I’ve been playing with ideas and want to write a proposal soon.
Is there a DVD release planned?
I am in discussion with a couple of distribution companies, but really hope to get distribution in the libraries and educational systems. Video on demand may not be a possibility because of the large companies’ music clearance limitations.
Besides the obvious point of the film uncovering a hidden history, is there anything else you think is especially important about this film?
In addition to telling powerful and inspiring stories, Lady Be Good will educate people about the importance of female musicianship and their persistence in the male-dominated jazz field. It is so important that their musical narratives be integrated into the American musical history.