A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, September 19, 2011

Swingin' Sisters

Ellen Seeling is a woman on a mission. Actually, three missions.
First, she wants to keep playing jazz, the music she has loved since she was a little girl listening to her father's Count Basie and Stan Kenton records.
Second, she wants to take jazz out of the musty, rarefied atmosphere of the academy and put it back where it belongs: on the dance floor.
"A lot of bands take dance gigs and then they play all this obscure stuff that nobody can dance to," she says. "Then they wonder why the audience for jazz is shrinking. Well, duh!"
Last but not least, she wants to end the historic gender discrimination in jazz, which has relegated female instrumentalists to second-class status. (Female vocalists are another story; there have always been opportunities for them.)
It was for all these reasons that Seeling - a virtuoso trumpet player who has played with Slide Hampton, Phoebe Snow and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, among others - founded the Montclair Women's Big Band in 1998 and the Girls' Jazz and Blues Camp in 2009.
"Women are being denied the professional experience they need," she says. "They don't get a chance to play with people who are better than them, so they have to do it all on their own. It's daunting. It's crushing, actually."
Currently, she leading a boycott of this year's San Francisco Jazz Festival, which features only two female instrumentalists among its more than 35 headlining acts.
(For the record, festival spokesman Marshall Lamm denies any bias, saying, "For nearly 30 years, SFJAZZ has presented many of the most illustrious women in and will continue to do so moving forward. SFJAZZ Education provides extensive outreach and guidance to young female musicians, and the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars has included young female musicians in the band since its inception.")
Seeling says women start bumping up against barriers when they're still little girls.
"I wanted to play the trumpet, but the music teacher told my mother, 'The trumpet is not a good instrument for girls. She'll have deformed lips, and boy's don't like that.' Thank God, my mother said, 'I don't care. Give her a trumpet anyway.'"
The Montclair Women's Big Band has been a success from the start. Music critics strained for superlatives to describe them, including Larry Kelp, who wrote, "See this band and then scratch your head wondering why it hasn't been featured at the big jazz festivals."
But their greatest endorsement came at their very first gig, when the audience paid them the supreme compliment: They got down on the floor and started dancing.
"It was such a rush!" says Seeling. "The band members were thrilled in spite of themselves. Being jazz musicians, they tried to be cool, but I could tell they were excited."
Being a pioneer isn't easy. Seeling has had more than her share of sneers and hate mail.
But times are changing. The band's solo trombonist, Sarah Cline, has been named the first female director of the award-winning Berkeley High School jazz program.
The band's next gigs are at the Women of Taste event at Kaiser Rooftop Gardens in Oakland on Oct. 1; at the Oakland Suffrage Parade, celebrating the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in California, at Lake Merritt on Oct. 2; and at Yoshi's on Nov. 27.