Have you ever gone to see a big band show in Vancouver and counted how many women were on the stage? I do, every time, and the most I have ever seen was six. Six women in a band of eighteen - that’s one third of the band - might seem like a low number, but if you’re a regular jazz-goer, you’ll know that that number is unusually high.
Christian Morrison, a long-time big band director and co-founder of the WestCoast Big Band Festival, felt that a change was overdue when she decided to create the Sister Jazz Orchestra: an eighteen-piece professional ensemble composed entirely of women-identifying players. Morrison was inspired to start this group when she attended a ‘How to Make an Album’ panel event hosted by the Women in Jazz Association (WJA), and heard a variety of successful artists discuss their goals, dreams, and the difficulties they faced. For Morrison, her goal became immediately clear: to showcase, empower, and inspire the female jazz community in the best way she knew how. As Morrison eloquently put it, “I’m a big band director. This is my instrument.” With support from WJA founder Jessica Heaven, Morrison embarked on the daunting journey of assembling a big band.
Luckily, Christian Morrison was prepared with a wealth of knowledge in the field of business, finances, and leadership, all of which have contributed to the success and momentum of the Sister Jazz Orchestra. A multi-talented instrumentalist, Morrison received a Bachelor of Music from McGill University before studying jazz, conducting and arranging at Capilano University. She later received a Master of Business Administration from Concordia University, leading her into a variety of successful endeavours in the business world. She has served as a senior vice president at RBC and now sits on the Board of Directors at Coast Capital Savings. Throughout her career she has been a champion for women in leadership, creating opportunities for women in business through company programs such as the Business Women’s Network.
You may wonder what place business acumen may have in the world of jazz. It wasn’t until I sat down with Christian that I discovered exactly how much planning goes into not only creating a big band, but organizing a big band festival as well. Five years ago, Morrison’s two worlds combined when she began the WestCoast Big Band Festival, a festival to showcase and celebrate community and professional bands from across the Lower Mainland. The festival has become a huge success, and one year ago Morrison set her eyes on this event as the perfect place to premiere the Sister Jazz Orchestra.
Long before rehearsals began, Morrison was already working tirelessly to bring this dream to life.
With sponsorship and a gofundme online campaign, Morrison was able to obtain funds for rehearsal space, access to copyrights on music, and most importantly, enough to compensate her musicians fairly. Then, it was a matter of choosing repertoire and finding personnel. “Every musician I asked to play in the ensemble immediately said yes,” said Morrison, expressing gratitude for the support and camaraderie she has seen among female players in the jazz community.
Morrison’s all-star team of musicians was assembled by reaching out to the professional players she already knew, as well as making new connections through those players. Among those players are some of Vancouver’s finest talent, including Juno-nominated bassist Jodi Proznick, alto saxophonist Ingrid Stitt, Hard Rubber Orchestra players Ellen Marple, Jocelyn Waugh, and Geeta Das, and a plethora of other professionals on the Vancouver scene (a full list of players can be found here). Lastly, Morrison decided to reach beyond Vancouver, and was lucky enough to form a connection with the DIVA Jazz Orchestra from New York City, including drummer and bandleader Sherrie Maricle. Maricle, recognized worldwide for her accomplishments as a drummer and as the leader of DIVA, will be joining the Sister Jazz Orchestra as a special guest at their debut performance.
Not only does the orchestra boast a lineup of stellar women in jazz, but the band will draw repertoire from a collection of almost entirely female composers & arrangers. The Sister Jazz Orchestra will be performing works from acclaimed composer Maria Schneider as well as pieces from the DIVA Jazz Orchestra collection, including Maricle’s original compositions.
The Sister Jazz Orchestra is the first all-women professional big band in Canada, and its significance in the jazz community is not lost on the players in the band. “It’s nice to have a group where I don’t feel like a token,” says Jen Davidson, tenor saxophonist. The Sister Jazz Orchestra has given these eighteen musicians the chance to play amongst colleagues who are all too familiar with the experience of being the only woman in the band. It has also given some players the opportunity to work with inspiring leaders of the jazz community. “It’s just as valuable for the players as it is for the audience,” notes Davidson. “I’ve had the opportunity to play with amazing female role models.” These players are also poised to inspire a new generation of young musicians. “This ensemble plays a crucial role in paving the way for young women,” says Jennifer Vance, baritone saxophone. “As a woman who plays a traditionally “macho” instrument in a traditionally “macho” genre, I have always found a disconnect between what is expected of me and what I’m capable of.” But Vance has never allowed these judgements to impede her goals. “I’m proud that my twelve-year-old daughter has always seen me as a musician, not a female musician. She knows that she can be a part of any ensemble her heart desires, without fearing something so inconsequential as being a girl. The Sister Jazz Orchestra is providing a vehicle for that knowledge.”
However, the Sister Jazz Orchestra is not the only all-female jazz ensemble in Canada, or even in Vancouver. The Leading Ladies Little Big Band, helmed by bandleader and trombonist Casey Thomas-Burns, will be appearing for a special performance at 6:30 PM on November 17, preceding the Sister Jazz Orchestra. Leading Ladies was created in the spring of 2019 when Thomas-Burns, a Capilano University student, recruited fellow students to play in the finale of the Leading Ladies jazz series at Presentation House in North Vancouver. From there, the band became a force to be reckoned with, tearing up the Vancouver jazz scene and quickly becoming role models for young musicians. The band is known for its seamless shifts from traditional to modern styles, and the exciting energy the players bring to the stage is infectious. This little big band should not be overlooked, and if you just can’t get enough of them after this show, you can catch them November 29, 6 PM, at the Swing Dance & Jam at St. Agnes Church in North Vancouver.
The 2019 WestCoast Big Band Festival will be an energetic, three-day celebrations of jazz music and the Vancouver jazz community, and this year will see several milestones crossed with not one but two all-female jazz ensembles taking the stage. Be sure to check out the full festival lineup, and get your tickets early for the festival finale on November 17 featuring the Leading Ladies Little Big Band and the world premiere of the Sister Jazz Orchestra. Tickets cost $20 in advance/$25 at the door, and there is an optional dinner service for $46. The show begins at 6:30pm.
For more information about the Sister Jazz Orchestra, visit https://www.sisterjazzorchestra.com/
To learn more about the DIVA Jazz Orchestra and Sherrie Maricle, visit https://divajazz.com/