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Montclair Women's Big Band to Play Mary Lou Williams Festival, Kennedy Center 5/17

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The economics of keeping a big band together may be daunting, but the thrill and power of the music have made it entirely worthwhile for veteran trumpeter Ellen Seeling, who co-founded the Montclair Women's Big Band in 1998 and has held it together ever since against the usual odds--and some unique ones.

Coinciding with the Oakland-based ensemble's 10th anniversary is its appearance next month (May 17) at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, where the big band will headline the Saturday evening concert at the 13th Annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival.

Featured artists with the 17-piece band for the Kennedy Center performance will be vocalist/percussionist Vicki Randle, of the Tonight Show, and the superb New York-based drummer Allison Miller.

Also making the trip to Washington are some of the band's finest soloists: saxophonists Jean Fineberg (the group's assistant director) and Mad Duran; trumpeters Seeling and Christy Dana; trombonist Sarah Cline; and pianist Tammy Hall.

“Some women are really against the all-girl thing, but it brings women to the forefront and it's really fun," says Duran. “The band puts on a fabulous show."

Adds Dana: “It's a really swinging band, with an emphasis on swing and groove. And it's a very different vibe than the typical big band, in which I'm usually the only woman. We're dispelling a lot of the myths that women can't really play."

Seeling is committed to providing her musicians with challenging material, respectable remuneration, and a convivial atmosphere. She is also passionate about helping to increase the visibility of women musicians. “It's no joke," she says of the lack of opportunities, “even though people don't take it seriously."

Despite her impeccable credentials and recording/performing experience with artists as varied as Ray Barretto and Chic, Seeling is still confronted with fusty attitudes about women on the bandstand. Just last month, in San Francisco, she was fired at the first rehearsal for a week-long Keely Smith gig--in front of the other (male) musicians--because Smith “refused to share the stage with another woman."

“We've had men in the band; for the last two gigs we used male drummers, and we've also used a male bassist," Seeling says. “But I love the idea of offering role models to young players so they don't feel weird about playing bass and drums, which are gender-identified instruments. I've seen fathers bring their young daughters to our shows, and the girls' eyes are big as saucers. It's something new for them, because the girls often get teased at school for playing some of these instruments. It also lets the boys know it's okay for girls to play trumpet, or drums."

All that was part of the mission ten years ago when Seeling launched MWBB with her business partner Barbara Price, who owns the 1920s-era Montclair Women's Cultural Arts Center, the band's home base in Oakland's Montclair district. But the music remains the main event. “I love blues-based music," says director Seeling. “I wanted a band on the Basie model, and the extension, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, which I had a chance to play with a couple of times. I'm so proud and grateful for this opportunity for the band to participate in the Kennedy Center festival next month, and to be part of the lineage going all the way back to Lil Hardin Armstrong and Mary Lou Williams and Valida Snow and Marian McPartland, up to the present. And I'm also looking forward to the day when women are part of the jazz mainstream and 'women's festivals' are no longer necessary."

This story appears courtesy of Terri Hinte.
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