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02 Nov 2016

(Really) Big Band: The Desert Winds Freedom Band Hosts LGBT Musicians From Around the World During Pride

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The Desert Winds Freedom Band. The Desert Winds Freedom Band. Mark Duebner

The profile of the Desert Winds Freedom Band, Palm Springs’ gay and gay-friendly concert band, has grown in recent years—and over Greater Palm Springs Pride, the 16-year-old group will be hosting musicians from around the world.

Hear the Desert Winds Freedom Band and friends—a whopping two 150-member concert bands, with an honors jazz band to boot—on Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Palm Springs High School Auditorium.

Dean McDowell, the director of the Desert Winds Freedom Band, explained the group’s history during a recent phone interview.

“The Desert Winds Freedom Band was founded by Gary Moline, who is still on our board, back in 2001,” McDowell said. “He came from San Francisco, where the first gay and lesbian band was founded, and he was involved in that back with Harvey Milk and the gay-rights movement.

“When he came here … he decided it was time that Palm Springs had (an LGBT band), so he started one, and started out with 10 to 15 people. They kind of slowly grew and had to go through several different directors. They did share a lot of members from the Los Angeles band for a while.”

McDowell moved to the Coachella Valley from Ohio.

“As soon as I moved here, they heard I was a conductor—and they were looking for a conductor. This is my 10th season,” he said. “Since then, we’ve grown from 24 members to about 80 members.”

McDowell touted the band’s diversity.

“Even though it’s an LGBT band and was founded that way, we are the only concert-band volunteer group in the desert,” McDowell said. “We have a lot of straight people who are LGBT allies who want to be part of it and support the group; I would say about 12 percent is straight. We have men, women, straight, gay and the whole gamut. When I started, the average age was about 65 or 70, and now we have 25-year-olds all the way up to 86 years old. It’s a very wide and diverse organization.”

The Pride concert on Nov. 5 will feature more musicians than just the Desert Winds members. Make that a lot more musicians.

“The Desert Winds Freedom Band is hosting the national Lesbian and Gay Band Association conference—so this concert is a little different than our regular concerts,” he said. “There are over 400 musicians coming in from all over the world, with members from LGBT bands all across the United States.”

The program, however, will be California-themed.

“We play typical band music—everything from fun Broadway music to Mancini pieces—and it’s very diverse,” he said. “The theme of the conference is California Gold, so (the music) is all about California and by California composers. There will be a symphony piece all about the San Francisco earthquake, and another piece called the ‘Gold Rush Rag’ about the Gold Rush in California.”

The Pride concert kicks off Desert Winds’ 2016-2017 season. There will also be a holiday concert in December, a jazz-band Valentine’s Day concert and dance, and a spring concert in March. McDowell said the band has also been in demand for community events.

“We started some smaller ensembles we can pull together,” he said. “We’re playing for the LGBT Community Center of the Desert’s grand opening; we always play at the AIDS Walk. We’ll also be playing for the Tour of Palm Springs.

“We have our concerts a little earlier, around 2 or 4 p.m., so people can go to other events. For the concerts in February and March, we didn’t want to take away from people going to events at the McCallum or someplace else.”

McDowell admitted that he’s annoyed at how relatively unknown the Desert Winds Freedom Band is in the Coachella Valley.

“We do a lot of outreach,” he said. “A lot of people in this desert still haven’t heard of us, even though we’ve been around for years, and people still don’t know about us. It’s very frustrating. We’re not just a tiny community band playing for ourselves. We actually have, in the community-band realm, straight or gay, some of the largest supporting audiences. … A lot of them struggle to get 150 people to concerts, when we have between 300 and 450 at our concerts. We’re trying to grow. We’ve certainly grown from the days of 50 to 60 people showing up.”

The Desert Winds Freedom Band’s scholarship fund is just one example of how the band gives back to the community.

“We want to do more outreach to the schools, do more workshops and be able to give more scholarship money,” McDowell said. “… Two years ago, we only had enough money to give two scholarships. Now thanks to some giving sponsors, we’ve been able to up it to $3,000 worth of scholarships this year. We hate to see students apply and not get scholarships. Kids going on to music education are future music teachers and band directors, and it’s really important to us.

“I used to be a music teacher in Ohio. Keeping the lifeblood in our schools and producing music teachers is very important to me.”

The Desert Winds Freedom Band’s LGBA Conference Pride Concert takes place at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Palm Springs High School Auditorium, 2401 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. For more tickets or more information, visit www.desertwindsfb.org.

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