Primary Instrument: Band/ensemble/orchestra
A decade is an eternity in the life of a jazz orchestra, but it’s not mere longevity that makes the Montclair Women’s Big Band 10th anniversary such a notable occasion. The Bay Area ensemble has set an enviable standard by every measure, serving as a potent rebuke to a scene that still often marginalizes female players. With a vivid cast of musical personalities, the MWBB combines an audacious sense of swing, tight ensemble work, and inspired solos.
Led by veteran trumpeter Ellen Seeling (and assistant director, saxophonist Jean Fineberg), the group has become a magnet for ambitious women musicians, most of whom also lead their own bands. She launched the ensemble in 1998 along with her business partner Barbara Price, who owns the beautifully refurbished Montclair Women’s Art Club in Oakland, which serves as the band’s home base. Above all the MWBB’s mission is to swing, and the 17-piece combo delivers a brassy, blues-drenched wallop, adding a strong feel for Latin grooves to a book redolent of Count Basie and Thad Jones. A strong command of the rollicking Kansas City sound makes the MWBB a particularly apt choice for the 13th Annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center on May 17.
“I love blues-based music,” Seeling says. “I teach a hard-bop class, but I have a long history in R&B, and I think of myself as a blues-based improviser. 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. We also play a good helping of salsa.”
The MWBB cemented its status as a world-class jazz ensemble with the release of its self-named debut CD, which was recorded at George Lucas’s state-of-the-art Skywalker Sound in Marin County and engineered by two-time Grammy winner Leslie Ann Jones, the Skywalker studio’s legendary scoring department manager. (The disc was produced by Seeling, Price, Fineberg, and Jones.) Focusing on standards and classic jazz compositions, the album captures the band’s swaggering power, while also showcasing guest stars, including soul belter Linda Tillery, Tonight Show vocalist Vicki Randle, and powerhouse New York drummer Allison Miller (the latter two will be on hand for the Kennedy Center gig).
Not that the MWBB requires any ringers. The orchestra features some of the region’s most charismatic improvisers and skilled section players. Tammy Hall, for instance, is one of the Bay Area’s busiest accompanists as the pianist of choice for supremely soulful singers such as Kim Nalley, Denise Perrier, and Linda Tillery. When tenor sax greats David “Fathead” Newman and Houston Person come to town, Hall gets the call. “It’s such a nice hang, being around other excellent female musicians,” Hall says.
Assistant Director Jean Fineberg leads a talent-laden saxophone section. A New York native, the tenor saxophonist spent years as a prolific studio player who contributed to more than 50 albums, including sessions by Laura Nyro, Patti LaBelle, Bo Diddley, and David Bowie’s hit 1975 album Young Americans. On the jazz front, she’s performed with trumpet legends Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie. Joining Fineberg in the saxophone section is the creamy-toned altoist Mad Duran, who has performed around the world in the band she co-leads with her husband, the esteemed jazz guitarist Eddie Duran. “Some women are really against the all-girl thing, but it brings women to the forefront and it’s really fun,” Mad says. “The band puts on a fabulous show.”
The MWBB’s sense of discipline, musicianship, and camaraderie flows directly from Ellen Seeling, a pioneering trumpeter who was the first woman to graduate with a degree from Indiana University’s prestigious Jazz Studies Program. By the late 1970s she was well established on the New York scene as an eminently versatile player who moved seamlessly between gigs with top rock, salsa, R&B, and disco acts. Whether blowing with Latin jazz pioneers Machito and Ray Barretto, touring with Chic and Sister Sledge, or recording with Laura Nyro and the progressive women’s rock band Isis, Seeling delivered her lines with energy, style, and precision. It was in Isis that she met Fineberg, who became her inseparable collaborator. Together they formed the hard-charging fusion band Deuce, which won a following in New York before they brought the band west to the Bay Area in 1989.
Trumpeter Christy Dana, a respected educator at UC Berkeley, traces her friendship with Seeling back to their days as David Baker’s students at Indiana University’s highly regarded music program. Not long after Dana moved to Berkeley in the mid-90s, Seeling contacted her about joining a new all-women jazz orchestra. “I’d heard Diva and Maiden Voyage perform,” Dana says, referring to the New York and L.A.-based all-female big bands. “I thought there were plenty of good horn players; the trick is getting a good rhythm section. We’ve definitely done that. It’s a really swinging band, with an emphasis on swing and groove. And it’s a fun collection of people, 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.”
Critics and fans have responded enthusiastically to the MWBB, which has gained visibility through a series of high-profile gigs. The orchestra performed at a sold-out event at UCLA produced by the Grammy Foundation and MusiCares program, “Mavericks in Music: Celebrating the Contributions of Trailblazing Women.” Major festivals have also come calling, with gigs at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, the San Jose Jazz Festival, and the Sonoma Jazz Society. Despite these triumphs, the band faces the same economic hurdles of any jazz orchestra, namely the daunting economics of running a large ensemble.
One reason that Seeling has succeeded so brilliantly at turning the MWBB into a going concern is that she came to the project with a good deal of bandleading experience. During her years on the New York scene in the 1980s, she ran the Big Apple Jazz Women for the Universal Jazz Coalition, a group that paved the way for Diva. While fostering a warm, inclusive vibe in the MWBB, Seeling makes it clear that she’s responsible for creative decisions. The key to longevity she says is providing players with challenging material, respectable remuneration, and a convivial atmosphere.
“If you really want to work and keep a band together, you have to pay people for their time,” Seeling says. “We’ve turned down a lot of work because we won’t play for the door. If your band loves you and loves the music, then you’ve got something you can sell anybody. That’s what I want in my band.”
And as the MWBB gets set to start its second decade, the band has an enviable reputation to build upon. “I think Ellen and I have a sense of the band’s place in history and its impact on the Bay Area music scene, both on and off the bandstand,” says co-founder Price.
“I see the women in the band networking, recommending each other for gigs, and hiring each other,” Seeling says. “That’s what I had in mind all along. I think we have helped some of the members survive financially. And it helps players who can be isolated, who are often the only woman on a gig. The band is a support network.”
The MWBB may be a lifeline for musicians, but for music fans it’s the life of the party, delivering hard-charging arrangements with grit, class, and rhythmic conviction. And after ten years, the band is getting set to take its music national. 3/08
“The big band from Oakland featured several fine soloists...a knockout! (Larry Appelbaum, JazzTimes)
“What stands out are the arrangements that take full advantage of the band’s expansive sound and gifted soloists.” (Mike Joyce, The Washington Post)
“Very impressive.” (Marian McPartland)
“On behalf of the GRAMMY Foundation we would like to extend our heartfelt thanks. Your performance was hailed as pure inspiration! (Kristen Madsen, The GRAMMY Foundation)
“One of the most formidable new jazz ensembles, male or female, on the West Coast….this is premium-grade big band jazz.” (Jack Bowers, All About Jazz)
“A sharp and consistently rewarding big band album, irrespective of gender….three cheers! (Jack Bowers, Cadence Magazine)
“When I first heard the Montclair Women’s Big Band I was thrilled, I was inspired, I was excited!” (Melanie Berzon, Program Director, KCSM-FM Radio)
“Thank you for an outstanding performance….it was great fun to feature the local treasure that is the Montclair Women’s Big Band on a San Francisco Jazz Festival program….it was a thoroughly enjoyable and uplifting evening of music!” (Randall Kline, Ex Dir, SFJAZZ)
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