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Loud and Proud: Girls Ellington Project Gives Voice to the Disenfranchised

Is this the year JazzEd’s all-girl band performs at Lincoln Center?

By Kathryn Robinson January 23, 2017 Published in the February 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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Image: Adam Hancher

If you’d walked by the MLK FAME Community Center in Madrona one cold Sunday last November—five days into Donald Trump being president-elect—you might’ve felt the sidewalks vibrating. Sixty-eight teens blowing on trumpets and thrumming on basses…the noise was powerful. The noise could move things. 

And if on that day you’d walked inside, you’d have observed that every one of these jazz musicians was a girl. Girls ages 12 to 18, some hoisting brass instruments—trombones, tenor saxes—big enough to swallow them whole. There’s something uniquely vulnerable about the teenage female, culturally disempowered both as the child she is and the woman she’s becoming…but that noise they were making? Pure authority. 

And standing before them, coaxing the cacophony into music—one badass force of nature. “Let’s make this part a little…stankier!” declared Kelly Barr Clingan, their maestro. “Attitude! Be all kinds of loud and proud with those half notes!”

This was Girls Jazz Day at Seattle’s jazz education nonprofit JazzEd, where Barr Clingan is education director. With her cool gaze and heel-tapping bobblehead sway, Barr Clingan embodies her art form; even her massive earrings are like percussion instruments. If she were a jazz concept, she’d be the shout chorus. “I had a sign in my room growing up that defined ‘Kelly’ in Gaelic,” she recalls. “It said, ‘Warrior Maiden.’ ” 

She came up in Seattle, playing trombone in the acclaimed Roosevelt High and University of Washington jazz programs, where she was one of a vanishingly small handful of women. If you think the tech industry is a men’s club, you haven’t met the jazz scene. The motto for one of Barr Clingan’s bands was “Play with more balls.” Her side project, the Mexican brass band Banda Vagos, is herself and 10 guys. “I get asked all the time if I’m the vocalist,” she mutters, explaining that playing jazz while female usually gets you taken for the torch singer. 

And so Barr Clingan ticks off her list of best practices for jazz teachers: Push girls into brass, drums, bass. (“We gender our instruments. Little girls do not have to play the flute.”) Hire female guest artists. For goodness’ sake, don’t tell girls to smile. (“Suggest they look engaged.”) Mostly: Make them improvise, early and often. “If girls aren’t taking jazz solos in middle school, we’ll lose them by high school,” Barr Clingan warns. Girls don’t lack talent. They just bring less of the competitive swagger that fuels the fearless leap to soloing—the swagger teenage boys raise to an art form. 

During a break from rehearsal of JazzEd’s all-girl band, I asked the girls about their motivations, drawing polite responses. Then I asked how it is to play without boys—and they erupted. “The boys are so cocky!” said one, to nodding heads. “Yeah, the boys in our band play because they like the competition,” said another. “But I just want to play music.

Now, Barr Clingan’s betting the music will itself be competitive. That aforementioned band is the Girls Ellington Project: 16 female jazz artists, all local high schoolers who rehearsed this past fall to send an audition tape to Essentially Ellington, the prestigious competition sponsored by New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. Competing against them will be the best high school jazz bands in the country—including frequent winners Roosevelt and Garfield. And not including, to JazzEd’s knowledge, a single other all-girl band. 

If the finalists announced in mid-February include the Girls Ellington Project, they’ll be the first all-girl finalists in Essentially Ellington’s history.

Performing at Lincoln Center in May would of course be huge for the Girls Ellington Project. It would be huge for Seattle, which since its Jackson Street heyday in the ’40s has had a somewhat inexplicable affinity for jazz. It would be huge for Jazz at Lincoln Center, which has drawn fire for never having had a woman in its orchestra’s nearly 30-year history. 

It would even be significant for jazz itself: an art form conceived, after all, by and for the disenfranchised. Last spring I watched last year’s Girls Ellington Project blow the roof off the Royal Room, revealing that what began as the musical language of empowerment for African Americans can hold universal power for other marginalized groups. Like girls. 

And that—days into President-Elect Trump being President Trump—may be the biggest upshot of all. “Art is the voice of social conscience in this city,” declares Barr Clingan’s boss, Laurie de Koch, who founded JazzEd knowing kids of color would benefit. That girls benefit too is its powerful coda.

“I will spend my career figuring out how we can make each jazz band at least half girls,” the maestro pledges, then plunges them into the downbeat.

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