I went to see the Montclair Women’s Big Band last Sunday at Yoshi’s Oakland. It was a packed house for the 17-piece ensemble. I’ve always loved big bands, but I’m more attuned to them now than ever since I’ve been working this year steadily with Pacific Mambo Orchestra. Unlike PMO, where trombonist Mara Fox (who played the MWBB show) is usually the only female instrumentalist, this band is all women (except for drummer Russ Gold).

The set list ranged from standards such as Salt Peanuts, Body and Soul and ‘Round Midnight to more modern fare such as Pat Metheny’s Song for Bilbao. Saxophonist Jean Fineberg is the assistant director and was the M.C. for the evening. Two of her compositions, Coulda Woulda Shoulda and Tattletale, were showcased, each boasting catchy riffs and bluesy chutzpah.

The show was well-paced and fast-moving. Other stand-out moments included trumpeter Christy Dana whistling on her own composition, It’s Time, and trombonist Sarah Cline’s rich tone and luscious vibrato on her lead work on Star Eyes. Trombonist Becca Burrington sang a version of Proud Mary she should be proud of (though a subtle-yet-cute dissing of female vocalists was used to set up her move to center stage). Saxophonist Mad Duran has a gorgeous, breathy, deep and languid sound on the sax, evidenced on her version of ‘Round Midnight.

Veteran trumpeter Ellen Seeling, interviewed not long ago by Marian McPartland on NPR’s “Piano Jazz,” is the director of the group, which was founded in 1998. Her gruff persona, unerring tempos and wry chagrin when she announced, mid-show, that the lead trumpet part (sheet music) would need to be retrieved by Yoshi’s staff from a locked dressing room were enjoyable to watch. Previously, I had only seen her in combat mode dealing with sexism against female musicians.

Unfortunately, female singers and even pianists have been caught in the crossfire, as I witnessed when she excoriated SF Jazz director Randall Kline at a 2010 musician town hall meeting for not including enough women-led groups or musicians in past lineups. Further, she clarified that singers or pianists did not count towards upping the female performer quota at the admittedly overwhelmingly male lineup of SF Jazz, even if they were bandleaders like myself. Women playing non traditionally female instruments such as horns or drums were her focus. And hey, I commend her mission. I myself was also on the losing end of a Facebook exchange with Seeling where I had the temerity to assert (as a thought experiment) that vocalists might be considered the most important part of a band, not the least. Due to this history, I was too timid to go up and say hi after the concert — though I’d gladly shake her hand out of respect for the work she’s done with MWBB and elsewhere.

I wholeheartedly agree with Seeling that women musicians should be encouraged, but having worked in two fields that have a predominant gender bias (magazines, which are very female-run, and software, which is very male), I don’t think there are easy answers to diversification, nor that reverse stereotypes of those women who do predominate in a given field (say, singers in music or project managers in software) is a pragmatic way to create an effective feminist coalition.

The view that female singers aren’t “real musicians” (pernicious in jazz) is no more helpful coming from female instrumentalists than it is coming from men. An opposite approach is found in the powerful Eve Ensler talk “Embrace your Inner Girl,” which celebrates those stereotypically female characteristics society calls weak. (I wrote the song “I’m Your Man” after watching that video.)

Onstage, Fineberg said that all female musicians knew what it was like to be asked, when saying she was “with the band,” if she was the singer. I believe it. But strangely enough, while I’ve experienced occasional sexism as a female bandleader, when I say I’m with the band (which does mean I’m the singer), they always ask me “what do you play?” The point is just that minorities often succumb to the crabs-in-a-barrel mentality; to be sure, their experience as instrumentalists is not the same as my musical journey, and this digression should by no means be taken to imply that the show itself was anything less than a joyful musical experience.

Fineberg noted to the audience that there were five women in their 20s in the group, meaning it has now become a multi-generational band. One musician told me she envied how many of these young women have come up in a much more supportive environment than Seeling or Fineberg or she herself knew starting out, when women were steered toward specific instruments or told they just couldn’t cut it at professional levels. We need look no further than the famous discrimination of the Vienna Philharmonic, where only blind auditions succeeded in ending the age-old perception that female musicians were of lesser quality than males.

The show ended with the fantastically rousing 1936 tune by Louis Prima, Sing, Sing, Sing. Russ Gold played riveting drumset that drove the whole band, locomotive-like, on a journey of irresistible fun. A few couples leaped to their feet and began swing dancing. The show ended with an encore to a standing ovation.

Montclair Women’s Big Band: Pianist Tammy Hall; trumpeters Ellen Seeling, Marina Garza, Tiffany Carrico and Ariel Vento; saxes Mad Duran, Jean Fineberg, Kasey Knudsen, Annelise Zamula and Carolyn Walter; trombonists Sarah Cline, Mara Fox, Crystal Bryant and Becca Burrington; bassist Ruth Davies and drummer Russ Gold.