Ladies First Big Band plays soundtrack for Amp Ball

Chautauquans of all ages turn out to dance the night away during the last Amphitheater Ball in 2009. Daily file photo.

Jessie Cadle | Staff Writer

Chautauqua’s Amphitheater will be oddly benchless this Independence Day. Instead of settling into seats, Amp program attendees tonight will swing across the dance floor to the music of the Ladies First Big Band.

Tunes such as “Sing Sing Sing” and “Jump Jive an’ Wail” will waft throughout the Institution grounds as part of the Amphitheater Ball from 8 to 10 p.m. The music, provided by the 16 female members of the Ladies First Big Band, will be a jazzy-swing style laden with big band classics from the 1930s and ’40s.

“So many events are segregated by age, but this breaks down the barriers,” said Director of Programming Marty Merkley. “The Amphitheater Ball is an event that brings the community — and all ages — together.”

Ladies First Big Band, based in Western New York, touts members that range from their 20s to their 50s. It’s a conglomeration of women that started with a six-person group in the mid-1990s. Three of the original members remain, including founder, manager and bassist Jennifer May.

“I have played throughout my career in a lot of different big bands, usually being the only female in the group,” May said. “So to have an all female group … there was just something about the chemistry.”

The Big Band collaborates with the Girl Scouts of Western New York each year. Any Girl Scouts able to attend rehearsal can perform a song with them at the group’s annual Women’s History Month Concert, held at the Tralf Music Hall in Buffalo, N.Y.

The all-girl atmosphere cultivates a comforting rehearsal space.

“Especially people who are new to the band and getting used to playing jazz, it’s a non-threatening situation,” said Jennie Jones, music director and first alto saxophone.

The Chautauqua Amphitheater will be the band’s biggest performance venue to date. Performing on July 4 holds special significance to May, who became a U.S. citizen in 2000 while touring with an R&B group at the Department of Defense.

Originally from London, she has lived in the U.S. since age 4.

“To actually go through the formality of becoming a U.S. citizen, I’m really thrilled to be playing on such a wonderful stage on such a patriotic night,” May said. “You’re celebrating such a great country, and helping people to celebrate — that feels good.”

May has played bass since age 20, when a neighbor asked her for a loan, giving her the bass as collateral. He never came back, and May has never looked back.

The bass is in her blood, as her mother played the standing bass while pregnant with her.

“Between myself, the drummer and the piano, we are the foundation and keeping the rhythm,” May said.

It’s the quick pace of the Big Band that drives the ensemble’s dance numbers.

“The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts,” Jones said of the ensemble’s sound.

Playing on the stage just two days before Diana Krall, the Ladies First Big Band sees the performance as a great opportunity, May said.

“To be on that stage providing the music for people to dance to and to have a great night with is quite a unique opportunity, and we’re really, really looking forward to it,” she said.