On a Calgary stage in 2018, Jane Perry appeared as a lean, limber figure with a brilliant smile and a ready quip. As artistic co-director of that year’s Unison Festival Unisson conference, she introduced the acts, which included 20 choirs for LGBTQ singers (and allies). While Ms. Perry was more accustomed to sitting behind a piano or standing with her back to the audience as a choir conductor, she delighted in the role. Her joyous exuberance helped build the crowd’s excitement as she led them through the musical extravaganza that she had helped conjure up. The event was one of a series of triumphs in Ms. Perry’s professional life.
“While her prodigious skills might have led her to pursue a professional career in chamber music, Jane, as in all things, listened to her heart and dedicated her life to bringing people together in community through music,” her sister, Ann Perry, said.
Jane Perry was legendary for her work with the gay community, having led the revival of Calgary’s tradition of musically excellent choirs for LGBTQ people and their allies when she started One Voice Chorus in 2011. She also conducted an LGBTQ choir in Ottawa.
“For me, Jane was a community fixture, beloved for her passion for music, but even more so for her ability to create environments where people of all ages and backgrounds could shine. She was the reason so many people were able to feel like they belonged, and were able to find kindred souls,” said Calgary activist Pam Rocker, who advocates for LGBTQ people.
A community builder, concert-class pianist, director of three choirs, summertime gardener, dedicated vegan and gay-rights activist, Ms. Perry, died on Jan. 17 in Kauai, Hawaii, two years after her diagnosis of metastatic colon cancer. She was 52.
“She will be missed, but her legacy will live on in countless hearts,” Ms. Rocker said.
Jane Elisabeth Perry was born on July 24, 1971, to Douglas Perry and Marilyn Perry (née Keirstead), in Campbellford, Ont., midway between Toronto and Ottawa. Jane began playing piano at age four and was soon winning awards. The family spent summers in Nova Scotia, where her father had been ordained a Baptist minister. He worked several years as a chaplain at Warkworth prison, near Campbellford, before joining the faculty at Queen’s Theological College in Kingston in 1978, where he taught pastoral care until he retired.
“Doug had a strong sense of ethics and justice,” says a 2022 death notice in The Globe and Mail for Rev. Perry. “When his advocacy for LGBTQ inclusion in the 1990s put him at odds with prevailing Baptist views, he found a new spiritual home at Chalmers United Church.”
Ms. Perry held bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance from the University of Ottawa, and an artist diploma from the Royal Conservatory of Music. Her musical career started in Ottawa, where she served as music director for the city’s First Unitarian Congregation from 2000 to 2011. Although new to Unitarianism, Ms. Perry quickly won friends by volunteering her time to lead music workshops and group singalongs at national and regional Unitarian conferences.
She made a good impression right away on Mary Bennett, executive director for the Canadian Unitarian Council from 2000 to 2008. Once, at a Vancouver conference, Ms. Perry “simply took leadership for the day,” stepping in without any preparation to lead a day-long preconference workshop when the scheduled presenter failed to show up. “She engaged those who were there and changed the atmosphere from negative to a very worthwhile experience,” Ms Bennett said.
She was also artistic director of Ottawa’s Tone Cluster (which bills itself as “quite a queer choir”) for 10 years, which is where she met her partner, Cora Castle.
The couple moved to Calgary in 2011 because Ms. Castle, a bass player, wanted to be closer to her family.
“Losing Cora is not an option,” Ms. Perry explained to the Calgary Unitarian Church hiring committee, which offered her a job as their congregation’s music director.
“Jane always said she wasn’t our music ‘minister,’ but in fact she ministered to us through her music, her joy, her support of all of us,” said Pamela Rickey, president of Calgary Unitarians.
After her move, the Calgary Renaissance Singers & Players persuaded Ms. Perry to join them as artistic director, although she had little experience with medieval music.
“She accepted the challenge and brought fresh energy, creativity, joy and superb musicianship to the organization,” said Marsha Haug, a board member with the Calgary Renaissance Singers & Players since 2012.
The year Ms. Perry arrived in Calgary, she also started One Voice Chorus. Kenzie Love, now secretary on the choir’s board of directors, enjoyed watching the ensemble’s first Christmas concert so much that he auditioned and joined them in early 2012.
Mr. Love cited the choir’s two Club Carousel concerts as an example of how Ms. Perry built community connections. The shows were named after Calgary’s first gay bar, which closed down in the mid-1970s. The cabaret-style concerts featured dance music that would have played at the club. Mr. Love recalled. “She [Ms. Perry] found people who had worked at Club Carousel and brought them to the concert. One of them became a member of the One Voice Chorus family – although not a singer – because of that experience.”
Likewise, in the spirit of reconciliation, Ms. Perry invited local Indigenous leaders to participate in events like the Unison Festival.
“She is amazing,” said Chantal Stormsong Chagnon, a Calgary Indigenous educator and activist. “She opened up dialogue and cultivated relationships to build toward truth and reconciliation on so many levels. She was incredible.”
She proved to be a highly effective leader with the Calgary Renaissance Singers & Players as well. In addition to helping the ensemble win several significant grants, said Ms. Haug, a retired psychologist, Ms. Perry took them through the pandemic with the same membership numbers as before, unlike most other choirs.
“She had a gentle, kind and collaborative leadership style, welcoming the ideas of others as well as articulately presenting her own,” Ms. Haug said.
Ms. Perry’s sister, Ann, remembers Jane’s playful side. Once she tried to make Ann laugh out loud in church by singing a whole six-verse hymn just slightly off-key. Much as Jane teased her sister, she doted on her musically gifted niece, Grace Perry-Howarth, who has played cello from an early age. The two enjoyed “auntie-niece jam sessions,” Ann said.
In Ms. Perry’s last public recital last summer, she accompanied her niece on the difficult Shostakovich Cello Sonata.
“Sometimes, I can’t accomplish fine motor skills with my hands in the way I used to,” Ms. Perry wrote in her Caring Bridge blog, explaining that her chemotherapy caused neuropathy in her hands and feet. Nonetheless, she spent three weeks practising the fourth section: “three pages of fast scales and crazy passagework.”
“It went really well,” she later reported. “For me, this was a personal victory – neuropathy be damned – and a heart-filling experience. … Will this be the one and only time I get to play a recital with my niece before my days are done? Hard to say. But if it was, it was a good’un. : ).”
Ms. Perry leaves her partner, Ms. Castle; mother, Marilyn Perry; sister, Ann, and brother-in-law, Scott Howarth; niece, Ms. Perry-Howarth; and extended family.
Ms. Perry fulfilled a lifelong dream in January when she and Ms. Castle flew to Hawaii with friends. “During her time here in Hawaii, she revelled in the warmth and sunshine and the majestic palm trees,” Ms. Castle wrote in the Caring Bridge blog.
“She went snorkelling, and she greeted sunrise on the beach every morning. I am picturing Jane’s spirit flying joyfully amid the palm fronds,” she continued, “surfing the ocean waves, and heading west into the sunset, free and light. If I listen carefully, I hear the music she is making as she goes.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the choir Jane Perry started in Ottawa, and her role with Tone Cluster. This version has been updated.
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