Film Focuses on Berklee Women Horn Players

Documentary challenges gender stereotypes of female horn players and casts alumna Hailey Niswanger in a starring role.
March 20, 2012

While pursuing a master's in professional writing, journalist Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn began writing a historical novel about a female musician. Loosely inspired by Clora Bryant, a jazz trumpeter from the bebop era, Littlejohn was looking to gain an understanding of the genesis of gender stereotypes for female musicians, particularly horn players.

A few years later, Littlejohn decided to dig deeper and pursue the subject of contemporary female jazz musicians and gender bias for a documentary. The University of Southern California graduate program gave Littlejohn, already a seasoned journalist, new storytelling tools and the subject matter made the documentary format a compelling medium.

"People had written about the subject, but these women need to be heard and need to seen," said Littlejohn. "I felt like instead of having the same conversation in writing, I'd put it out there and let people judge for themselves why this was nonsense, to let women show why this is ridiculous."

"What I found after about a year of doing research is that there are still some of the same gender stereotypes and biases against female horn players as there were in the '30s and '40s," she said. "When I decided to do this as a film project, I wanted to explore those kinds of challenges plus celebrate what women are doing now."

Berklee figures prominently in the forthcoming But Can She Play?, which casts alto saxophonist Hailey Niswanger '11 in a starring role and gives other students, alumnae, and faculty top billing. Niswanger, whose debut 2009 album Confeddi piqued Littlejohn's interest, put Berklee on her radar while Niswanger was still a student here, and led to featuring faculty Robynn Amy (trombone) and Christine Fawson (trumpet), student Grace Kelly (alto saxophone), and alumnae Stephanie Baird (trombone), Claire Daly (baritone saxophone), Aubrey Logan (trombone), and Linsey McDonald (trumpet).

"As a journalist I was curious about why we don't know more about musicians like Hailey [Niswanger] and Grace Kelly and [saxophonist] Tia Fuller and why their albums are relegated to CD Baby and online."

"I really wanted to tell a contemporary story where we can look back at the history of it but focus on what women are doing today, what kind of ground is being broken now, and how this will impact the women coming behind them, what kind of path they're forging for the next generation," she said. That Niswanger, an inaugural member of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, was still a student when Littlejohn began to shadow her was compelling. "This helped bridge the part of the story about the future and the young women coming up," she said.

And Berklee was ripe with stories. "Berklee became a great place for me," said Littlejohn. "Women there were both teaching and studying, they were mothers and single women and women touring."

Why horn players? "While I'm sure a lot of women musicians—bassists, guitarists, and drummers, for example—can get the 'but can she play?' stereotype when they walk in, other things were compelling to me about female horn players. One thing that often came up was, 'Well, women aren't physically equipped to handle horn playing,'" said Littlejohn.

Niswanger has had to counter such assumptions, proving herself on stages and in studios and by developing a strong, assertive sound. "I'm not afraid to put air through the horn, to have a big sound," she said. "You kind of learn to flip the tables and embrace your womanhood."

And for Littlejohn, who grew up playing piano, the film has many points of personal connections. "I think their story is my story," she said. "Growing up as an African American woman and becoming a journalist, being often times the only woman or only African American in the press room. . . I think one of the things that surprised me is how I can relate to who they are and their struggles and challenges."

With Niswanger as the protagonist, the film threads in the stories of women horn players and how they are challenging gender biases and influencing the transformation of contemporary American jazz.

"These women are the some of the most awesome musicians I've ever met. They've been so gracious with their time, allowing me to shadow them, their talent and their lives," said Littlejohn, noting how grateful she is to Berklee for its support of the project.

Now that Niswanger has graduated and on the eve of releasing her sophomore album, The Keeper, in New York, the next chapter of the narrative commences. "We want to see how this journey unfolds for her," said Littlejohn.

But Can She Play? will go a long way toward showing women are just as capable, said Niswanger. "I think this film is going to do a lot of good for the jazz community and I'm thankful that Janice was brave enough to take this on," she said.

The project's shooting schedule includes stops in New York, New Jersey, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and back to Berklee, with hopes of having the film ready for submitting to festivals or for distribution by the winter of 2013.

While the film is still in the works, Littlejohn can say with certainty that the women featured in But Can She Play? have already answered the title's question with a resounding "yes."