Lee Hartman wants to show a few hundred musicians from as far away as Australia and Great Britain that Kansas City isn't flyover country.
Hartman gets his chance next week, when Kansas City’s Mid America Freedom Band, of which he is artistic director, plays host to 30 concert bands and marching bands coming to Kansas City for the Lesbian and Gay Band Association's annual conference.
Several days of rehearsing, networking and socializing culminate with a public performance at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, May 26.
"I really wanted to ... highlight that, hey, the Midwest is where it’s happening,” Hartman says.
Anyone who can read music can join the Mid America Freedom Band, whose members are all either gay, transgender, or allies. They rehearse each week in the basement of Central Presbyterian Church in Midtown. Until recently, they performed all of their regular concerts in the J.C. Nichols Auditorium at the National World War I Museum and Memorial; next fall, they move to The Medallion Theater at Plexpod Westport.
The organization began 16 years ago with just 14 members and is now 80 members strong.
“We really focus a lot on the works of women composers, LGBTQ composers, trans composers, and composers of color," Hartman says. "It’s been a wonderful, wonderful thing to be like look it, there’s great music out there, you just have to do a little digging to find it.”
Works be these composers can be challenging, particularly for a band who has new faces at almost every rehearsal.
But Hartman says he’s confident they can pull it off.
“After five years of being artistic director, there’s a lot of trust there," says Hartman. "That I trust my band can do this. They trust me that we can pull them through, even though the first read, they might look at me like. ‘What are you doing? You are crazy.’ But, we all get there and we all make beautiful music together.”
Hartman says the band is about making music but it’s also about building community.
That's certainly been the case for Freddy Morado, who has played the euphonium in the Mid America Freedom Band for 12 years.
“I love the playing, and I love having people sitting on either side of me to play with me," Armstrong says. "We’ve gotten to be friends, real friends.”
The same goes for Ansel Armstrong, a performance major back in college who plays both flute and piccolo.
“Just being in a group of people that have similar experiences, that adds another layer of something that you share,” Armstrong says.
“I’ve had good experiences in pretty much all of the ensembles I’ve been in," Armstrong adds. "And you have that base connection with everyone that you’re all playing the same music together. But being in an ensemble where you have some kind of similar identity as well, (that) really strengthens the experience for me.”
Cliff Norris, the president of the Lesbian and Gay Band Association (he lives in Atlanta, where he plays tuba with the Atlanta Freedom Bands) says that's one of the reasons these bands exist.
“There are people who perhaps didn’t have a good experience in their high school or college band," Norris says. "There are people who tell us that they were bullied. But yet, their interest in music was still there and our bands offered an open, welcoming space that they could come and rekindle their interest in music.”
Norris says when so many musicians from different cities join together onstage at their annual conference, something magical happens.
“When we all gather for that first rehearsal, we sound the tuning note," says Norris.
On the one hand, Norris says, it's just a regular B flat.
"But for me I think of all these different paths that come together in that one moment and intersect, and then we all breathe in the same air in that one breath and make that one note together. I think of it as a moment of unity.”
National Lesbian and Gay Band Association Conference Jazz Concert and Gala, 8 p.m., Friday, May 25 at the Richard J. Stern Opera Center, 1725 Holmes St, Kansas City, Missouri 64108; Conference Concert Bands, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 26 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, Kansas City, Missouri 64108.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.