Is this your first film?
No, I've made a couple of short documentaries — one on all-women's orchestras in California and another on film music preservation at Paramount Pictures — but this is my first feature-length production. As a music historian and cultural preservationist, I felt that the Peggy Gilbert story would lend itself well to the medium. Not only do I have several wonderful interviews with Peggy on camera, including one at age 80 and another twenty years later, when she was 100, but I also have been able to acquire more than 700 still photographs, related to her long career in music.
What is unique about Peggy's story?
Peggy is a fabulous musician, bandleader, and advocate for women musicians. Her story is the story of the all-girl bands of the 20th century and the efforts to create equal opportunities for women instrumentalists. She's 100 years old, seen it all, done it all, and has plenty to say about life and about music. Few are around from her generation, to tell the story of women musicians of vaudeville and early jazz.
How long have you known Peggy?
I've known Peggy since the early 1980s. When I had a weekly radio program on Pacifica Radio KPFK in Los Angeles, called Music of the Americas, I often did programs on women in music. A number of people called me at the station and encouraged me to interview Peggy Gilbert about Los Angeles' women in music. They told me that she was a one-woman network for women musicians in the jazz field and that she knew everyone. As I got to know her, Peggy and I became friends. I was able to produce her first recording, Peggy Gilbert and the Dixie Belles, for Cambria Records. Together, we organized the "Luncheon to Honor the Pioneer Women Musicians of Los Angeles" in 1986. I interviewed her several times on the radio show and also for an oral history, as I was hoping someday to write a book about her and the all-girl bands.
Tell us about her 100th birthday party.
I was one of the organizers, along with Serena Kay Williams, Judy Chilnick, and Ann Patterson of Professional Musicians Local 47. The party was held on January 17, 2005, in Hollywood, and I presented a slide show, featuring 80 photographs of Peggy's life. One of the party guests was Lily Tomlin, who is a close friend of Peggy's. She suggested that I make a film about Peggy, put me in touch with a foundation that offered funding, and agreed to narrate the film.
I understand that not only did you direct, write, and produce this film, but you also wrote the film's score.
The film's music includes recordings of Peggy's playing in the 1930s and '40s, as well as her 1986 recording of The Dixie Belles. The underscoring that I wrote for the film is orchestrated for woodwind quintet, vibes, piano, bass, and percussion, rather than for a big jazz band, because I wanted the audience to know that, when they hear saxophone during the film, they are hearing Peggy's performances.
What are the highlights of the film?
There are hundreds of rare photographs, documenting Peggy Gilbert's life and career in the entertainment business. Even people who have known her for decades may not know about her early days, such as when she toured the vaudeville circuit with Fanchon and Marco, or her band's tour of the Hawaiian Islands in 1933, or her USO days in Alaska during World War II. The film includes a clip of Peggy's appearance on the TV show This is Your Life (1957) with Ralph Edwards. Peggy's band also performed on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, in the Rose Bowl Parade, and in several television sitcoms. Peggy even did some television commercials. But the real highlight of the film is Peggy herself. She's an inspiration to all. To hear her talk about issues — ranging from music professionalism to essential personal relationships — gives us insights into how she has led such a long and productive life.
What have you learned about filmmaking?
My film is like a patchwork quilt. It is an assemblage of fascinating bits and pieces — from video footage (old and new), photographs, flyers, ticket stubs, brochures, old newspapers, correspondence, air checks, to Peggy's own snapshots and even her drawings. My editor, Glenn Winters, has done a marvelous job of making the whole thing swing. Working with Peggy on this film has been an amazing process. Through her work — in vaudeville, movies, nightclubs, radio, and television, as well as at the musicians' union — she changed it all for women musicians.