Ladies First Big Band to bring the swing to Amphitheater Ball

The Ladies First Big Band

Those who jumped, jived and wailed at the 2012 Amphitheater Ball can look forward to a repeat performance tonight. The Ladies First Big Band returns at 8 p.m. to a semi-benchless Amp for a concert that they expect will make Chautauquans of all ages get up and move.

“We love to watch the people dancing,” said bassist Jennifer May, the band’s founder and manager. “It just makes us want to play even better.” 

It isn’t hard for Ladies First to make the audience shimmy and shake: most of their music is made for movement.

“We really try to have a lot of different styles,” May said. 

Ladies First plays not only traditional and modern jazz, but swing, jive, beguine and salsa along with other Latin genres. Like the band itself, their typical audience includes a wide range of ages, catering to college swing dancing groups and over-65s alike.

May didn’t mean to found a big band. The six-woman Ladies First Jazz Combo had been playing together since 1994, but in March 2003, when she recruited a group of other women musicians to play with the Combo at a jazz concert for Women’s History Month, there was too much chemistry to keep quiet.

Since then, the 16-piece band has played together almost every Sunday at the Colored Musicians Club in Buffalo. Women have come and gone over the years, but May said they have all become more confident musicians in the process.

“There’s a different flavor to the way we work, the way that we rehearse, the way the music’s played,” she said, referring to the band’s all-women composition. 

Many women in the group were not encouraged to explore or play solos in high school and college jazz bands, settings in which male members often dominated. 

“Almost every single person has said that it’s just been wonderful to relax and play,” May said. 

Jennie Jones, the band’s director, agreed. 

“I think we get more done, to tell you the truth,” she said. “I think we work a little harder because we want to really improve ourselves. We concentrate on the music. We’re there to really perfect something.” 

Jones also plays the saxophone and sings with the band.

“There’s a different thing with guys. They tend to be more competitive,” May said, whereas in an all-women band, “it’s just ‘play and get better.’”  

May has noticed an uptick of women in jazz — even in the last five years. 

“It’s changing a lot,” she said. “There are many more women in the high school bands, in the college jazz groups. There are so many talented women being encouraged to really play better, and do better, and given  the solos.” 

Since their the last Amphitheater Ball, the band has added a new trombone player, as well as several new songs to their repertoire, May said. 

More than anything, “we’ve been rehearsing really hard, doing a lot of performances,” she said. “Just getting better, just getting better.”