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Rainbow City Jazz Band creates space for all kinds of expression

More than a dozen musicians playing saxophones, trombones or trumpets sit in tiers surrounded by rainbow lights.
Damien Hall
Rainbow City Performing Arts
Rainbow City Jazz Band performs at Dance the Night Away, March 22, 2024 at Benaroya Hall.

Social justice is part of very fabric of jazz. Since the 1960s, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Nina Simone, Sonny Rollins and other prominent artists have tackled racism openly in the music, and particularly since #metoo, women’s inclusion in jazz has been a hot industry issue. However, some have noted the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in jazz, as well as their manifold contributions to the genre, have received considerably less focus.

“'I have been asked what it's like being white in a field of music that's considered African-American,” jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton told the New York Times in 2002. “I think it would be equally valid to ask me what it's like being gay and playing a form of music that's seen as macho. It's interesting that the subject never seems to come up.''

That’s why Rainbow City plays a vital role in Seattle’s music community. The Seattle-based music nonprofit is dedicated to creating inclusive spaces for musicmaking and promotes the representation and equity of queer musicians and composers. On June 22, Rainbow City’s jazz band — one of seven predominantly LGBTQIA+ ensembles the nonprofit supports — will play a youth pride disco at All Pilgrims Christian Church, put on by the queer youth activity and resource center, Lambert House.

“We’re all in the band for the same reason – to play jazz. We have found our own family.... we’re there to share us with the larger community,” said Cindy Braunheim, who’s participated in a variety of Rainbow City ensembles for about 20 years, and even met her wife at the organization.

“It’s been a huge part of my life. I fell in love [with the organization] in 2001 when I sat in on a concert band rehearsal, they started their warmup with a scale, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what I was missing.’”

Queer-facing music opportunities

Rainbow City formed in 1998, after founders Jo-Ann Christen and Scott Lewis noticed there were few, if any, queer-focused performing arts organizations present during the Seattle Pride Festival and Parade.

“It started as just a marching band for the Pride Fest and for the Pride Parade and it slowly evolved,” said Christopher T. F. Hanson, Rainbow City’s artistic director.

Today, the organization supports a variety of large and small music ensembles, including a 100-person concert band, Reign City Riot, the pep band for Seattle's NWSL soccer team Reign FC, and a jazz band that frequently performs out in the community. Plus a marching band, drumline, and Color Guard, which will continue the tradition of performing at Seattle’s Pride Parade on June 30.

To the nonprofit’s knowledge, Rainbow City is the only organization of its kind in the state, and it continues to grow, having just added an orchestra in 2022.

Rainbow City provides a musical home where many musicians had none. Some members had previously struggled to find safe, welcoming environments where they could make music. Hanson said that’s why Rainbow City “queers'' traditional approaches to musicmaking by centering values like accessibility, innovation, inclusion, exploration, and authenticity.

“Queerness is not just an adjective, it's a verb,” Hanson said. “As a queer person, I like to see the world as it could be otherwise, to quote Maxine Greene. I want to use my imagination and my innate creativity and ability to see past binaries to challenge the way that we do things.”

A musician with short white hair wearing black clothes with a purple vest plays the saxophone surrounded by other musicians.
Damien Hall
Rainbow City Performing Arts
Cindy Braunheim has played in Rainbow City ensembles for more than 20 years. She plays tenor sax in the jazz band and manages the ensemble.

In this way, most ensembles at Rainbow City are not audition-based, to encourage anyone to join. (The jazz band does audition for some permanent seats, but Rainbow City is reviewing that process.) Likewise, many of the organizations’ groups embrace non-traditional instrumentation and cross-genre repertoire.

To participate in Rainbow City’s ensembles, members pay quarterly dues to help cover the costs of some of the organization’s operations. The organization’s Angel Fund will cover dues partially or entirely for those in financial need.

An open, diverse jazz experience

While all their ensembles embody the queer inclusion and equity-focused values of the organization, Hanson says their jazz band can be particularly conducive to LGBTQIA+ empowerment and expression, due to the very nature of jazz itself.

By teaching the concepts of improvisation and emphasizing the individual’s creative voice, jazz gives members the tools to break down and flout the toxic social and cultural norms that they’re taught from a young age.

“Jazz is not defined by a particular instrumentation. It's defined by the way in which you express yourself, the ideas that you share, and these very intentionally open forms exist for personal expression,” said Hanson, crediting Seattle JazzED’s Director of Education Kelly Clingan for this guiding philosophy.

Sure enough, Rainbow City jazz band’s openness has led to an incredibly diverse band when it comes to age, skill, and sexual orientation, making it a place where members like Braunheim find consistent belonging and enjoyment.

The current membership includes a range of ages, from people in their 20s to their 70s. The band is 64% women and includes transgender musicians, as well as straight and cisgender musicians. At only 20% non-white, the band would love to work with more BIPOC musicians, according to Braunheim, who plays tenor saxophone in the jazz band and serves as their ensemble manager.

“We’re here for community, and not just for gay people. We have everyone in the band. We have straight, queer, trans, gay, lesbian, purple, green, chartreuse,” Braunheim said.

The jazz band is also open to strings and vocalists, and they frequently play cross-genre arrangements that combine jazz with funk, hard rock, pop, and Latin tunes. All ensembles at Rainbow City also emphasize compositions by women, BIPOC, and queer composers.

Music for everyone

In this way, Rainbow City’s ensembles celebrate the distinctiveness of the queer musical perspective, and there’s a lot to celebrate.

As Hanson points out, much of twentieth century music that we laud to this day was written by queer people, including a large percentage of jazz standards. For example, prolific jazz composers Cole Porter, known for tunes like “Night and Day,” and Billy Strayhorn, who composed songs like “Take the A Train,” were both openly gay.

Musicians playing colorful clarinets stand in a row on a field wearing rainbow marching band hats.
Damien Hall
Rainbow City Performing Arts
The Rainbow City Marching Band perform with Drumline and Color Guard at the Seawolves Pride Night, Starfire Stadium, June 9, 2024.

“I would say 40% of the jazz standards were written by queer composers and that info didn’t come out until after they were gone,” Braunheim said. “It takes research and time and a desire to reflect the changes that community has affected over the years to fully understand the impact of queer history.”

In their audiences, Rainbow City hopes to stoke excitement and curiosity. They hope audiences may feel inspired to pick up an instrument and play in an ensemble.

They also hope listeners will be challenged in their perceptions of queerness. This could mean reevaluating what queer musicians and composers were overlooked in their music education or realizing a beloved musical artist was queer. It also means considering what social and historical norms within music, and the world, may have excluded queer musical artists from their awareness.

“Our existence doesn't challenge that of traditional ensembles...and for those that say it does, that's when we get to step in as queer people and say, ‘yeah, guess what, I can exist and it doesn't affect your existence as a cis, white, heterosexual man,’” Hanson said.

“We have an audience. We have people that want to hear and celebrate us on stage, and we can coexist.”

Alexa Peters is a Seattle-based freelance writer with a focus on arts & culture. Her journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Downbeat, and The Seattle Times, among others. She’s currently co-authoring a book on the Seattle jazz community with jazz critic Paul de Barros, due to be published by The History Press in 2026.