1 Jun 2016

Sisters of Swing

From New Zealand Society, 3:30 pm on 1 June 2016

by Katy Gosset

Take some top jazz musicians, add a little swing and a bit of feminine feistiness and you have the All Girl Big Band.  

The Christchurch group formed early this year to put their own spin on classic and contemporary jazz music.

The vocal tutor at Ara Music Arts, Kate Taylor, is the group’s lead singer and one of its founders. 

A photo of All Girl Big Band vocalists, Kate Taylor and Anna Whitaker.

All Girl Big Band vocalists, Kate Taylor and Anna Whitaker. Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

“The fact that we could generate 16 plus good female players in Christchurch, why not celebrate that as a big band?”

A photo of Trombonist, Charlotte Crone.

Trombonist, Charlotte Crone. Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

She said it was less about flipping gender stereotypes and more about enjoying music with mates.

First Trombone, Charlotte Crone, said she loved the female camaraderie. “Rehearsals have been a  blast .. we have some good banter.”

“Not that we’re not mates with the guys.” Pianist and vocalist, Anna Whitaker, was quick to add. She said often female musicians found they were “the only girl in the band” and they were used to that.

But she said the women were enjoying playing together and deciding what direction to take. ”Starting to find our sound, just figuring out what works and what doesn’t.”

The group was still trying to pick a name and they admitted agreement could not always be reached when it came to choosing a costume !

The co-founder and musical director of the All Girl Big Band, Lana Law, said, at that point, the discussion became “very female”. “We can’t decide.”

A photo of the Sisters of Swing, the All Girl Big Band in action

Sisters of Swing, the All Girl Big Band in action Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

Ms Taylor said they hoped the name would influence their style as well. “[We’re] finding our feet, finding our sound and finding our look.”

A multi-generational band

Anna Whitaker said she also enjoyed the mix of ages in the band which ranged from 17 to the mid-70s.
“Because we’ve laid down that it will only be girls we’ve ended up with a multi-generational band .. so I think that is more different than just being the only girl in amongst the guys.

A photo of Pianist and vocalist, Anna Whitaker.

Pianist and vocalist, Anna Whitaker. Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

Jill Fenton will soon turn 77 but admits she was a “late starter” in music, only picking up the trombone when she was in her late 40s.

“I was brought up with brass but girls didn’t play brass instruments when I was young so I sang in a group instead.”

When she did start she played alongside much younger school students. “They’ve always just accepted me.”

A photo of Jill Fenton (far left) who took up the trombone in her late 40s.

Jill Fenton (far left) took up the trombone in her late 40s. Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

She feels fortunate to be included in the All Girl Big Band. “I think it’s a wonderful experience. I don’t know how many years I’ll keep doing it but it's great fun.”

Lana Law, said Ms Fenton was “pretty impressive” and the younger women appreciated her experience.

She said many of the band’s members were music teachers and gigs were also an opportunity for their female students to see them in action and take inspiration from an all-girl group.

A photo of the band's musical director, Lana Law.

The band's musical director, Lana Law. Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

The jazz legacy

Christchurch has a long history of jazz musicians and big bands and, for Kate Taylor, the connection is personal.

A photo of Vocalist,Kate Taylor.

Vocalist,Kate Taylor. Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

As the grand-daughter of renowned Christchurch trumpeter and arranger, Doug Kelly, she grew up with jazz. “If you’ve got a great connection with your players and you’re just loving the music, any gig is a good gig.

But she cites a tribute concert for her grandfather, where she sang from his original handwritten charts, as a career highlight.

“Having my Granddad as an inspiration is pretty special so it’s definitely, definitely number one on the list I’d say.”

However Ms Taylor said the All Girl Big Band had big plans of its own and would tackle a Natalie Cole tribute later this year, as well as performing at the Christchurch Big Band festival in October. She said, down the track, they also hoped to move into new arrangements of contemporary songs, in the style of the American group, Post Modern Juke Box.

A photo of sheet music for "Unforgettable", a song by Natalie Cole. The band is planning a tribute to the artist.

The band is planning a tribute to Natalie Cole. Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

Bringing music into the city

With many musical genres to choose from, Charlotte Crone believes jazz is no longer as popular as it once was. She said work was needed to woo audiences to gigs.

“I reckon it’s important to bring it back from yesteryear and bolster it back up with big bands.”

A photo of the All Girl Big Band's trumpet section.

The All Girl Big Band has a full trumpet section. Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

A photo of Pianist and vocalist, Anna Whitaker.

Pianist and vocalist, Anna Whitaker. Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

Anna Whitaker said the city had many talented musicians, as she found when she recorded a big band album shortly after the earthquakes.

“I remember.. having one of those moments where I was like “Man, Christchurch is awesome and I’m so, so lucky to be singing with such amazing players.””

Kate Taylor said she was a strong advocate for bringing music back into the inner city and she believed the band had a role to play in that.

“Christchurch is always looking for new and exciting and it’s really important for us to be fueling that as the creatives in the city.”

A photo of Vocalist, Kate Taylor.

Vocalist, Kate Taylor. Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

Get the new RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to New Zealand Society

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)