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Love at First Sound : Acoustic bass player Mary Ann McSweeney is classically trained, but jazz is her main interest.

July 30, 1993|LEONARD FEATHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Leonard Feather is The Times jazz critic

When Mary Ann McSweeney arrived in Los Angeles in 1983, conditions were hardly ideal for her in terms of a career in jazz.

She had quit San Jose State Univer sity because her teacher had been fired. "He was my reason for being there, but I thought it was time to come to L. A. and check things out."

Her instrument was the bass. She knew hardly anyone in town. She was a 21-year-old woman in what remained essentially a man's monopoly.

Little by little things fell into place. Saxophonist Ann Patterson helped her get started, and for 10 years she played gigs with Patterson's all-female orchestra, Maiden Voyage. Tonight, at Chadney's in Burbank, she will be on the bandstand with the Jazzbirds, a five-woman splinter group out of that band, along with the trumpeter Stacy Rowles and trombonist Betty O'Hara.

Upright bass was her fourth instrument. Born in San Jose but raised in Santa Cruz, she began studying with her pianist mother at age 5. "Then at 8 I had my own teacher, and I got to the point where I was playing piano concertos. They were offering violin at school, and we had one at home, so I took that up too."

In junior high, her orchestra director told her, "The girl playing electric bass is leaving. You want to play bass just this one semester? So I took this electric bass home and my mother almost flipped--'cause she was really classical. She said, 'You're playing three instruments at once! You can't do that.' Well, maybe she was right. Although I enjoyed playing in the jazz band and loved the music, I didn't know exactly what I was doing, because I was really classically trained too.

"Anyhow, when I got into high school, my band director handed me an acoustic bass, and said, 'Why don't you try this?' Right away I just loved it. I occasionally go back to the electric, but with acoustic it was love at first sound."

Though jazz is her main interest and brings a fair income, she is always ready for a straight studio job. There have been slow periods, but glancing through her date book, she commented that things are looking up. "A whole bunch of jazz gigs just came in.

"It's hard at times to work regularly in this town--they really want people who have a CD out. We have 70 arrangements in our Jazzbirds library, but nobody has recorded us. Actually I did just make a record, with a great sax player named Gene Burkert, but it's not out yet."

The gender prejudice that often plagues female musicians has affected her less than one might expect--at least to her knowledge. "There are only one or two incidents I can recall. One time this guy calls me up and says, 'Hey, Mary Ann, I wanted to ask if you can recommend a bass player for a gig.' I don't think he even realized it was an insult. Then he said, 'The guy told me he doesn't want a female in the band; I already tried that.' So I told him I wasn't going to recommend anybody. But by and large, when I came here, people were very supportive."

"I've known Mary Ann for quite a few years," Rowles says, "since she came to a Maiden Voyage rehearsal. Over the years that I have known her, she has improved by leaps and bounds, and I really believe she is one of the best bass players in Los Angeles today."

Over time, she has also acquired a thorough knowledge of the history of classical, rock and jazz bass. Her idols range from such long-departed legends as Oscar Pettiford and Paul Chambers to several living giants: Ray Brown and John Clayton (she has studied with both) as well as Ron Carter, Dave Holland and Charlie Haden. She has worked for such conductors and for Leonard Bernstein, Lalo Schifrin and John Williams; gigged with Herb Alpert, Barry Manilow and Burt Bacharach, and played several jazz festivals.

Her most precious recollection is a cruise she took with the Jazzbirds a few seasons ago. "Dizzy Gillespie was aboard too, and one night he sat in with us, playing a duet with Stacy Rowles. He was such a sweet and gracious man. That's a memory I'll always treasure."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: The Jazzbirds with Mary Ann McSweeney.

Location: Chadney's, 3000 W. Olive St., Burbank.

Hours: 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. tonight.

Price: No cover, two-drink minimum.

Call: (818) 843-5333.

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