JENNIFER JACKSON’S PORT TOWNSEND NEIGHBOR COLUMN: Big Band bass player is standout

BASS PLAYER ELLEN Finn is a standout performer during Centrum’s Northwest Big Band week in more ways than one.

First, she is one of the few women attending the annual event at Fort Worden State Park for musicians who swing to the beat of Count Basie and Benny Goodman, Woody Herman and Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.

Second, Finn is a bit younger than the average musician who attends the week, many of whom grew up in era of the music they play.

Third, she hasn’t even picked up a bass, much less played one, since she was here last year.

“She left her instruments in Sally Rodgers’ closet,” Elaine Ramsey explains.

Elaine is co-organizer of Northwest Big Band week with husband Elmer Ramsey, a trumpet player with bands that backed big-name performers in Hollywood.

Ramsey took over as Northwest Big Band music director from Gus Lindquist, who started it 13 years ago as part of Elderhostel.

Rodgers was the event’s program manager when Finn started coming to Northwest Big Band seven ago on the recommendation of Floyd Hillman, a friend who is a piano player.

A full-time professional musician in Seattle for 15 years, Finn is the co-founder of the Seattle Women’s Jazz Orchestra and had her own trios and quartets.

But 2 ½ ago, she decided to take a one-week vacation in Honduras to learn Spanish.

Before she went, members of a church where she had played handed her an envelope full of cash, telling her to “do something good with it,” while she was down there, she said.

Finn took the few hundred dollars and bought school supplies for rural schools.

“They don’t have chairs or pencils,” she says.

Falling in love with the country and the children, she decided to move to Honduras, where she started an organization to build and repair village schools. It’s work that requires her to travel by burro and horse into the countryside.

When she moved to Honduras, she didn’t take either of her basses SEmD one acoustic, one electric SEmD because there isn’t any place to play in Copan Ruinas or space in a two-room apartment.

“Sometimes the apartment has electricity, sometimes it has water and sometimes it has both at the same time,” she said.

“I cried for my bass the first six months I was there.”

So for the past two years, Finn has made the four-hour trip by bus from her apartment to the airport, then flown to the States SEmD this year to Houston and on to Seattle.

Musicians come from all over the United States for the weeklong event, which culminates Friday in a concert and dance at the USO Hall.

But none comes farther than Finn.

“I have the record for longest commute SEmD 18 hours,” Finn said. “Last year it was 24 hours, but I found a way to cut it down.”

Also coming a long way is Bill Brislin, a trombone player and first-time participant who lives in Essex Junction, Vt.

Participants from nearer by include Don Smaltz, Craig Buhler, Joey Lazzaro, Don Taylor and John Zuerman, all of Sequim, and Dick Thorson from Port Angeles.

Buhler, who was in the band Honk in the 1960s, teaches improv at the Big Band workshop along with Rex Rice, Owen Mulkey and Chuck Easton, all from the Port Townsend area, and Bill West, who is from Arizona.

Many of the participants were music teachers, Elaine said, including Lylburn Layer of Port Townsend.

Elmer, who made his California debut at the Hollywood Bowl in 1958, also taught when he was first out of college SEmD one of the participants in this year’s Big Band week, Doug Teeter, was his band student at Lennox High School in Lennox, Calif.

Teeter, who plays trumpet, is making his second trip from Fresno, Calif., for Northwest Big Band week.

“Before that, we hadn’t seen him for over 40 years,” Elaine said.

The oldest musician is also from California SEmD Al Kaehler, a saxophone player from Palo Alto who is 89.

Playing at the Hidden Valley Music Seminar last year in Carmel, Calif., Kaehler, was asked by student musicians what he wanted for this 89th birthday.

He replied that he wanted to go sky diving.

“Which he did,” Elaine said. “I think he’s planning on doing it again his year.

“I think it’s the music that keeps them young.”

So far, Finn hasn’t managed to integrate her past and present, she said.

So for the past two years, she has made the trip to Seattle, then to Port Townsend, where she gets her bass out of storage and moves into the state park dorm.

She may be out of practice, but spending the week playing swing and jazz with a big band is like riding a bicycle.

“The love comes back,” she said. “The passion for music comes back.”

The 13th annual Northwest Big Band Concert and Dance, featuring 33 musicians in two bands, is on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in the USO Building at Fort Worden State Park, Port Townsend.

Chuck Easton leads the second band, with Mary Lou Montgomery and Jenny Davis performing vocals.

Admission is by donation at the door.

Musicians also will be performing a preview jam session tonight at 7:30 at the Upstage in Port Townsend.

For more information about Finn’s work in Honduras, go to www.Projectschoolsupplies.org.

________

Jennifer Jackson writes about Port Townsend and Jefferson County every Wednesday. To contact her with items for this column, phone 360-379-5688 or e-mail jjackson@olypen.

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