Kelly Barr Clingan is a woman on a mission.
That mission is music, specifically jazz.
Barr Clingan directs the bands program at Seattle’s Washington Middle School. She also plays trombone in a Mexican band. And she teaches classes for a nonprofit organization called Seattle JazzED.
Barr Clingan may be most passionate about the all-female high school band she leads: the Girls Ellington Project. Her goal is to take these girls to the finals of a prestigious high school band competition called Essentially Ellington, sponsored every spring by New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center.
If they make it, the Girls Ellington Project would be the first all-female group to take the stage in the competition’s 20 year history.
To understand why Barr Clingan is so driven, you have to go back to the mid-1990s, when she was a member of the Roosevelt High School jazz band.
“My freshman year in the jazz band there were five girls,” Barr Clingan says. “My last three years there were only two girls in the band, myself and the pianist. Which felt normal to me. I really liked my time with the dudes.”
But then Barr Clingan enrolled at the University of Washington to study trombone, music education and eventually, women’s studies.
“I realized it was kind of bizarre there were so few women in that jazz band,” she says.
Instead of writing a graduation thesis, Barr Clingan called friends at high schools around the city and organized her first all-girls band. They called themselves New Girls on the Block, which delighted Barr Clingan.
“We played music all composed by women, then we had one big concert, the culmination of my thesis.”
Barr Clingan calls it the coolest experience and the catalyst for her work today on the Girls Ellington Project.
She and Seattle JazzED teamed up to create the band three years ago. They recruited musicians from the JazzED programs, as well as some of Barr Clingan’s former students.
Saxophonist Marianna Aptacy plays with the jazz band at Bellevue High School, where she’s a student. But she couldn’t resist the chance to play in the Girls Ellington Project.
“In jazz, girls get self conscious. Girls actually drop out of jazz band more often than guys.” Aptacy chalks that up to the fact that, at her school, the jazz band is mostly male.
“Here there are so many friends," she says. "If you drop out of your school band, you can come here and it’s so much fun.”
Barr Clingan smiles at comments like that. For her, the notion of an all-girls jazz band, especially one that aspires to break into an elite national competition, is subversive.
“If we could have a band of girls walk across that stage at Lincoln Center, man, would that be a statement.” she says.
It won’t be easy getting to New York.
More than 100 high school jazz bands apply every year for the Ellington competition. They submit recorded performances, chosen from a list of approved Duke Ellington tunes.
Only 15 bands make the cut.
Barr Clingan acknowledges that her girls will have a particularly hard time. Only three bands from any given geographic region are allowed to participate in the finals in any given year. And the Pacific Northwest is a high school jazz powerhouse.
Last year, a Portland band won the Ellington competition. Seattle’s Garfield and Roosevelt high schools have participated in the finals more than a dozen times each; Garfield has taken top honors four times, while Roosevelt has won three times.
But there’s more at stake than the competition.
Jazz at Lincoln Center, the sponsor of Essentially Ellington, has been under fire because its house band has no permanent female members. Some observers believe the very presence of an all-girls band at the annual competition would send a strong message that female musicians have what it takes to play with the best.
Whether or not the Girls Ellington Project makes the finals, Barr Clingan says the band will play on.
They’ve got a couple of Seattle gigs lined up this spring, and Barr Clingan wants to expand the band’s repertoire beyond Duke Ellington and expand opportunities beyond the two dozen girls who are involved right now.
Garfield High School senior Kaela Jackson says that would be great. The trumpet player says the Girls Ellington Project is the best band she’s played with.
“Being here with everyone, all here for the same reason, a common goal, helps to solidify taking notes on the page to the next level, beyond random sounds,” Jackson says.
Essentially Ellington releases the list of finalist bands for its 2016 competition on Wednesday, Feb. 17.