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British Columbia's Sister Jazz Orchestra in concert on March 11

17 women all dressed in black hold instruments including guitars, cymbals, saxophones and more. Some of the women are standing, some are seated in chairs, and two are seated on the floor.
Courtesy of the artist
Sister Jazz Orchestra

Canada's only professional all-women big band debuted in 2019, and then got sidelined in 2020 by COVID-19. It's coming back swinging and celebrating the rich artistic contributions of the female jazz community as performers, composers and arrangers on March 11.

The Sister Jazz Orchestra, created by Christian Morrison in 2019, is an 18-piece professional ensemble composed entirely of female-identifying players, showcasing Vancouver's most accomplished female musicians.

According to the Women in Jazz Association of British Columbia, it's a celebration of mainstream big band jazz from the female perspective — the other half of the story.

Morrison, a longtime 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.

Morrison was inspired to start this group when she attended a 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.

“I’m a big band director," says Morrison. "This is my instrument.”

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 she moved on to choosing repertoire and finding personnel.

“Every musician I asked to play in the ensemble immediately said yes,” says Morrison.

She's grateful for the support and camaraderie she has seen among female players in the jazz community.

Sister Jazz Orchestra Premiere

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 18 musicians the chance to play among 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,” Davidson notes. “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 judgments to impede her goals.

“I’m proud that my 12-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.”

The Sister Jazz Orchestra performs Friday, March 11, at 7:30 p.m. at the BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts, 2055 Purcell Way, North Vancouver B.C.

Locally, the Seattle Women's Jazz Orchestra is working on a comeback plan for 2022. Stay tuned!

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.