File under sincere but backhanded compliment: Jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, talking about trumpet player and legend in her own right Clora Bryant, says, "When you close your eyes, she sounds just like a man."
The quote is from Trumpetistically Clora Bryant, a documentary by San Diego indie filmmaker Zeinabu irene Davis. The movie about the jazz musician's career will be screened Sept. 14 at the Arts & Entertainment Center in North Park.
As with other fields dominated by men, women jazz players have had to excel to be taken seriously by their male counterparts. Bryant, one of the last living musicians of the bebop era, broke through the gender barrier at a time when women in jazz were more likely to be seen behind a microphone or piano. Horns were considered "male" instruments.
Discussing Bryant's achievements throughout her 53-year career is an exercise in name-dropping. She toured with Billie Holiday. She's the only female trumpet player to ever record with Gillespie. She played with other greats like Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Carl Perkins and Dexter Gordon.
Now 78, the "trumpetiste" paved the way for other women jazz instrumentalists and continues to lecture on jazz history and mentor young musicians.
Bryant's story is told through interviews, archival footage and live performances. Filmmaker Davis said she's interested in recounting stories about people that don't often get told, and black women in particular are frequently marginalized in the media. Bryant, despite her successes, never received wide recognition.
But she was an inspiration to Davis.
"She was somebody I could look to as someone able to carve out a creative career in the arts," Davis said. "That's how I got hooked. I went to see one of her performances. I never saw a woman play the trumpet before. I got whatever kind of cameras I could get my hands on and recorded her as much as possible."
Trumpetistically Clora Bryant, a work in progress near completion, has been 18 years in the making.
But Davis hasn't been loafing; in the interim, she has produced half a dozen other works. She is also mother to a 4-year-old daughter. She's a professor of communications at UCSD. And she frequently writes articles on black cinema.
Davis herself is no stranger to bringing down barriers. When she began making films 25 years ago, there weren't many female directors, let alone black female directors.
The numbers today are only slightly better. A Directors Guild of America report published in 2003 showed that women represented just 22 percent of total membership, with 13 percent of women in directorial roles.
"It's a very white, male-dominated field in Hollywood," said Renee Herrell, founder and executive director of the San Diego Women Film Foundation, which is hosting the film event. "For women to try to break through, it's tough. Women of color have an even deeper challenge in overcoming stereotypes and racism."
Davis recalled screening her films to the black community in the early days, when people would assume she was an actress in the film, or perhaps the public-relations person.
"They didn't see the possibility of a black woman actually directing and producing a film," she said.
By the late '80s, things had changed-somewhat. But she still ran into students from the Dizzy Gillespie School of Back-Handed Compliments.
"A lot of people said, "OK, so you want to be the female Spike Lee.' Of course my answer was, "No!'" Davis said with a laugh. "I admire Spike's career, but his portrayals of women are not always as well rounded as I would like them to be."
Davis has taken powerful women almost exclusively as her subject matter-and that's not by accident. In her dual role as filmmaker and teacher, Davis both engenders positive images of women in media and encourages the next generation of women filmmakers to step into "a man's world" and make it their own.
Trumpetistically Clora Bryant screens at 7 p.m., preceded by a reception at 6 p.m. featuring live music, spoken word, food and wine. Tickets are $10 at the door. The Arts & Entertainment Center is located at 3026 University Ave. in North Park. Visit www.sdgff.org.