Out in Berkeley: First annual Women in Jazz Festival

Ellen Seeling: co-founder of the Montclair Women's Big Band

Trumpeter Ellen Seeling and saxophonist Jean Fineberg have never been the types to sit around and moan about injustice. When they got frustrated by the dearth of opportunities for women in Bay Area jazz orchestras, they went ahead and launched their own rip-roaring combo, the Montclair Women’s Big Band, which has earned a devoted following on the strength of its tight ensemble work and improvisational firepower.

Two years ago, they struck another blow for female players by creating a summer Girls’ Jazz & Blues Camp, a program produced with the Jazzschool in downtown Berkeley. And this weekend, Seeling and Fineberg introduce another showcase for the region’s impressive array of women instrumentalists, the First Annual Women in Jazz Festival.

Presented by the Jazzschool, the festival kicks off Saturday night with Young Lionesses, a concert featuring some of the best young players on the scene (almost all of whom were standouts in the music programs at Berkeley, Albany and El Cerrito High). Organized by alto saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, who leads or co-leads several adventurous bands, the Lionesses include drummer Camille Dyhr, trumpeter Ariel Vento, bassist Liana Miles, trombonist Mariel Austin, and pianist Erika Oba (younger sister of respected saxophonist Hitomi Oba).

Jean Fineberg, co-founder of the Montclair Women's Big Band

“Kasey is the best young alto player I know,” says Seeling from the house she shares with Fineberg in Pinole. “Erika is from Berkeley, and she’s actually a double threat on piano and flute who graduated from Oberlin and immediately got a gig teaching at the Jazzschool.”


Sunday afternoon’s concert, Jazzwomen Veterans, brings together a stellar cast of bandleaders, composers, featured soloists and esteemed educators, including Seeling and Fineberg, altoist Mad Duran, pianist and Jazzschool founder Susan Muscarella, bassist Carla Kaufman, drummer Kelly Fasman and trombonist Sarah Cline, who runs Berkeley High’s jazz program.

“The concept for both groups is for everyone pick three or four tunes and show up to rehearsals with parts ready to go,” Fineberg says. “The idea is for everyone to choose different styles and different instrumentation, so we mix it up.”

The festival is also designed to call attention to a new undertaking, the Women’s Jazz & Blues Camp on March 26-30, another project that brings together the resources of the Jazzschool and the educational wing of the Montclair Women’s Big Band.

Judging from the talent regularly featured on local bandstands, women have never been more visible or influential in jazz. In addition to the players involved with the festival, the Bay Area scene would be bereft without movers and shakers like pianist Myra Melford, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, trombonist Angela Wellman, pianist Tammy Hall, guitarist Mimi Fox, trumpeter/vocalist Sarah Wilson, clarinetist Beth Custer, bassist Ruth Davies, saxophonist Mary Fettig, and violinist India Cooke (and that’s just off the top of my head). But when it comes to high profile gigs, the situation isn’t nearly as sunny, Seeling argues.

After many years of lobbying SFJAZZ to present more women musicians, she got fed up last year and called for a boycott of the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

“I’ve been on Randall for over 10 years and we’ve gone back and forth,” Seeling says. “Last year, there were two women instrumental headliners out of about 40 acts, and when you include all the sidepeople the percentage is much smaller.”

Susan Muscarella: performing during the Jazzschool's International Women's Day concert on March 11

Fineberg is quick to add that their advocacy for women players indicts no disrespect for female vocalists, who are often accomplished musicians too. “What we’re saying is the discrimination in jazz is in the instrumental area, not the vocal area,” she says.

No band in the Bay Area has done more to highlight the profusion of talented female players than the 17-piece Montclair Women’s Big Band, which Seeling founded in 1998 along with her business partner Barbara Price (who owns the gorgeously refurbished Montclair Women’s Art Club in Oakland). While she launched the group “to address the still horrible discrimination against women players in this music,” the band has provided numerous other benfits, particularly to network professionally and also hang socially.

“The guys have that, but we don’t,” says Fineberg, whose disparate credits include everything from a gold record for her sax work and background vocals on David Bowie’s 1975 album “Young Americans” to gigs with Laura Nyro, Patti LaBelle, Bo Diddley and trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie. “We’re usually one or two of the only women in big bands.”

Not this weekend.

Andrew Gilbert, who writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

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