Ellen Weller discovers a new, more enlightened and welcoming scene at UC San Diego

“It’s called ‘free-improvisation’ because there’s no money involved"

Ellen Weller has put up with a lot macho culture in the jazz world.
  • Ellen Weller has put up with a lot macho culture in the jazz world.
  • Courtesy Ellen Weller

Dr. Ellen Weller has had her hands in many projects since arriving at Palomar College in 2005, where she teaches classes in music theory and ear training and conducts the symphony orchestra. Originally, though, she left San Diego for Los Angeles in the late '70s to pursue a career in jazz saxophone.

That didn’t exactly work out.

“First of all, I got very little encouragement,” recalls Weller. “One of my sax teachers was more interested in getting in my pants than in actually hearing me play.” She feels that the “macho” element in the jazz community didn’t exactly welcome female musicians. “Once I answered an ad for a saxophone player, but I was told that chicks caused too many problems.”

Before she left for school, Weller did have some positive experiences. “It wasn’t all bad — I studied with [San Diego reed veteran] Joe Marillo when I was 16, and that was wonderful. But even after I got the gig with Maiden Voyage, my phone continued to not ring. Maybe I just wasn’t good enough, but by the time we moved to New York, I was mostly focusing on [classical] composition.”

After ten years in NYC, Weller and her husband Bob came back to San Diego where she enrolled at UC San Diego and discovered a new, more enlightened and welcoming scene in the free-improvisation community.

“For one thing, I wasn’t the only woman showing up to play. In mainstream jazz, I always felt that the men weren’t comfortable around me. Their scene is very aggressive and competitive, and I don’t always feel like music should be that way.”

Weller found her voice in avant-garde jazz, but there was just one problem. “It’s called ‘free-improvisation’ because there’s no money involved. I moved into academia because I needed to make a living. Teaching music full-time and conducting the orchestra has helped me grow as a musician, because everything is connected in the long run.”

It’s counterintuitive, but there are strong similarities between leading an orchestra through complex notation and playing a solo without benefit of a pre-conceived plan, Weller insists.

“Composition at its best feels very improvisational, and when I’m improvising I’m always thinking about structure and form — those worlds are closer than you think.”

She’s looking forward to taking a sabbatical next semester to play some dates in London with the Weller family band (husband Bob on piano, sons Danny and Charlie on bass and drums) and hook up with improv communities in France and Japan.

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