Janice Littlejohn

*Writer Janice Littlejohn exposes the sexism that has existed and continues to permeate the world of jazz in her first documentary “…but can she play?” a film that celebrates women jazz musicians and follows a young saxophone player attempting to make a name for herself in the genre.

The film’s title could also refer to Littlejohn herself, a longtime freelance journalist who is attempting to elbow her way into the big-boy Hollywood machine by soliciting funding for the project entirely on her own.

“Just doing the outreach takes a lot of energy and a thicker skin than I thought I had — and a stubborn persistence which I have plenty of — but it’s absolutely worth it,” Littlejohn tells EUR exclusively. “I love the women I’m profiling, and I love their music. I’ll do whatever it takes to tell their story.”

Janice decided to explore the plight of women jazz artists several years ago while working on her graduate thesis at the University of Southern California.  She decided to write a novel in which the main character was based on bebop trumpeter Clora Bryant, a protégé of Dizzy Gillespie.

“As I was doing research, I went looking for women horn players to talk to — past or present — about what it’s like being a musician who played an instrument that, even now, is most often associated with men,” she says. “To my surprise, I discovered that women trumpet, trombone and saxophone players today still face some of the same gender stereotypes as women horn players of the past — and with jazz on the fringe of popular music, shrinking airtime and fewer gigs available, women musicians today have fewer opportunities to be heard by the general public.”

Hailey Niswanger's 2009 debut album "Confeddie." She plays alto sax exclusively here, but can also play soprano sax, flute and clarinet.

The documentary centers on the journey of 21-year-old saxophone player Hailey Niswanger, as she matriculates from Berklee College of Music – where she’ll be completing her final semester of study this fall – and forges a post-graduate professional career.

“There will be some unexpected demands and inherent pressures that will challenge her as an artist — especially one who happens to be young, female and Caucasian,” says Littlejohn. “There’s still, unfortunately, a perception that jazz is a thing that older black men in New Orleans play. So there will have to be a lot of perception-busting issues she’ll have to overcome. As I mentioned earlier, jazz is not the popular music of the day.  So there will be many struggles in getting the kind of attention of which she’s so deserving.”

The biggest challenge for Littlejohn so far has been finding new and creative means to finance the film.

“I’d read a book by Carole Lee Dean called ‘The Art of Film Funding: Alternative Financing Concepts’ and she noted that friends and family are the obvious means of financing a project,” says Janice. “I really had to step outside of my comfort zone with that one, but I found that those closest to me — and even people I know only virtually through Facebook — were more than willing to give me five dollars here, a hundred dollars there…and one of my friends who I stayed with in San Francisco while finishing my thesis, donated a thousand dollars!

“I’ve also been soliciting local businesses, small businesses and corporations; filling out grant applications — but the recession has hit hard for so many, and avenues that might have normally been lucrative are not so lucrative anymore.”

Despite the challenges, Littlejohn says this is a labor of love that she plans to push across the finish line.

“Despite all of the celebrity interviews and important personality profiles I’ve done in my 20 years as a journalist this, for me, is probably the greatest story I’ve ever told,” she says. “It’s not only wrought with amazing music and phenomenal women, but it’s a universal story that most anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider, or been made to feel they couldn’t be the person they wanted to be can relate to.”

  • If you can relate and would like to support, contributions can be made online at the Pasadena Arts Council’s EMERGE Fiscal Sponsorship webpage here. In the meantime, check out the presentation reel for “…but can she play?”