Jodi Proznick: Sun Songs for Social Change


In the small but spacious landscape of the Vancouver jazz scene, there is no one that embodies female power better than Jodi Proznick. As a Juno-nominated professional bassist, composer and educator, Jodi is changing the game for female players through her art and her work as a teacher.

Jodi grew up with music surrounding her. With a high school music teacher for a father and records always spinning throughout the house, musical inspiration was never far. Jodi’s earliest memories include dancing to music in the living room, piano lessons, and falling asleep under the pool table at jam sessions hosted by her father.

From a young age, Jodi was inspired by women in music: the divas of the 80s such as Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, The Go Gos, The Bangles, Tina Turner and Pat Benatar made a real impression. Ten-year-old Jodi was particularly in shock and awe of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,’ whose music video features a girl being scolded by her dad. The girl pushes her dad against the wall and spins him around, singing that girls just wanna have fun.

Despite her upbringing, Jodi never anticipated life as a professional musician. Her career, she recalls playfully, began by accident. After years of piano lessons, Jodi approached her grade 7 year with a decision to make about which instrument to play in her father’s band class. Wanting to be helpful, she asked her father what he needed in his band, to which he replied, “oboe.” After a year of struggling to play a fiberglass oboe with plastic reeds, Jodi composed a note to her father, which she left in his room for him to find: “Dear dad - I know you really want me to play the oboe, but I just can’t.” It was not long after that that she picked up the electric bass, an instrument that had its advantages for Jodi: she could play in the grade 9 big band (which meant going on band trips), it was an instrument her father could not play, and it meant she could blend in and stand at the back of the band. For young Jodi, this was necessary. Having endured bullying as the lead in the elementary school musical, she was fearful of the spotlight and any position that would require her to solo or take the lead.

Jodi’s relationship with jazz began in high school, when she started playing upright bass and had the opportunity to see Ray Brown play. “I looked at him and thought, I look nothing like that,” says Jodi. “It’s not anything I would ever imagine myself to be.” Female bass players were scarce on the scene, but the music inspired Jodi nonetheless. “I really felt his sense of joy, just so much joy in what he did that night. I thought, if I could ever make people feel that way, the way he’s making us feel right now, that would be an amazing thing to do.”

Jodi never received lessons in how to play the bass, except for a few suggestions of how to walk a bass line from a player in town. Her self-taught skills and talent did not go unnoticed: fellow high school students auditioning for university jazz programs asked her to play with them. It was only then that she nervously threw her name in the ring, ultimately winning a huge scholarship to study jazz at McGill University. At that point, Jodi was dead set on going to Kwantlen College to study sciences in preparation for medical school. It wasn’t until someone from McGill called her personally and persuaded her to enroll that she changed course. “I didn’t know how to play an F# major scale. But I could read, and I had good time.”

Jodi initially followed the performance stream in McGill’s Jazz Studies program, but switched to education after a year. Jodi describes her anxiety surrounding her first year as, “...so stressful and so much pressure to be somewhere I couldn’t be at fast enough, because I had no training.” The stress, though, vanished after Jodi began following her passion for education. “Because I took myself out of the pressure-cooker of performance, says Jodi. “I started playing better. And it was more fun.” She formed a group with fellow classmates Sienna Dahlen and Cindy Fairbank, two of the eight women in McGill’s jazz program at that point, and went on to work with several other women from the program, including Juno-winner Christine Jensen.

Songs from Foundations (2007), Jodi’s first album, were created while she was studying for her Masters Degree in Arts Education. Though she had never imagined herself as a composer, she began drawing inspiration from a combination of everyday life experiences as well as some of the deeper questions she was exploring in her studies of the individual artistic process. Her tune, “Duke of York” was inspired by her 27-pound house cat and the groove she imagined his belly to be moving to when he walked. “Acquiescence” came from a dance and movement class where the teacher encouraged participants to think of the ways individuals express themselves through music, and the question, “How can I write a song where it feels like you’re hanging, or floating?”

Sun Songs (2017), Jodi’s most recent album, was created over ten years. It reflects a range of powerful emotions from her life. “I was going through a horrible, powerful, difficult time where my mom was ill with Alzheimer's, and I was simultaneously trying to raise my newborn son.” Through this struggle she filled journals with sketches, words and music. When it came time to compile these ideas into songs, it was, she says, like filling up a cup with little ideas, and then simply drawing from the cup. “I’m proud of myself for birthing it,” says Jodi. “If it takes ten years, it takes ten years. Which is why music school can suck sometimes: there’s this feeling that you’ve got to get things done for each deadline, and you don’t always have the time, space or energy that you need to create. You need to walk out in the park and then lie down and look at the stars; and then go write one bar, and then leave it for three weeks. That’s my process.”

Jodi’s creative process is very influential in her teaching. Her emphasis on building safe, supportive spaces for students to learn and create is a result of her own experiences learning in less comfortable environments. “The narrative of my own life really ties in to how I teach,” says Jodi. She is currently an instructor for Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s (KPU) music program. She also leads the annual VSO School of Music Summer Jazz Workshops as well as adjudicates and works as a guest clinician for various music programs. As a champion of education and the art of teaching, Jodi is currently designing the curriculum for a new one-year 21st Century Music Education Diploma program at KPU. The program will be designed for music teachers, and it will combine pedagogy, technology and creativity to investigate the question, “How can I awaken imagination in my teaching practice while incorporating technology?” This is a bold new approach into the study of music education, as Jodi notes that there are many ways that music is being taught in the current era, but not a lot of accessible resources for how to teach it.

As a music educator, Jodi is at the forefront of social change. Her objective is to create learning spaces that are inclusive, comfortable and encouraging for all students. She wants to empower students to challenge themselves while ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to feel heard. Jodi knows from firsthand experience the difficulties associated with being a woman in the jazz scene - a largely male-dominated field that can, at times, feel like an old boys’ club. She speaks of all the fears and insecurities women can experience being the only girl onstage, and the questions most women end up asking themselves: was I hired for my talent, or because they think I’m cute? Was I not hired because they don’t want more than one woman on the bandstand? When I am awarded with accolades will it be assumed that I only received them because I am a woman?

When asked about the barriers she has faced as a woman in the jazz community, Jodi says, “It’s a complicated question, when you are forty-two years old and have managed to endure it all up to this point, to be considered part of the jazz fabric. Nobody makes me nervous anymore: if people don’t like me, it doesn’t bother me. But in your earlier years that can really matter so what happens is you placate, you ignore, and you endure uncomfortable situations; you keep your head down in order to just play the music.” Jodi talks about the constant need she felt to prove herself, and of never being able to fully relax as much as her fellow male musicians. This fear and isolation is a result of the lack of women on the scene. She acknowledges the objectification of women as the current reality, one that needs to be shifted by a new generation of strong, young women. A large responsibility, she maintains, is on jazz school faculties to, “actively recruit, support and encourage women to pursue their education, to seek the credentials they need to stay in the game, to keep their eye on the ball, to make great music, and to know that they are more than capable.”

Real change is happening, though. “You aren’t going to change people’s hearts. There are certain things that are entrenched in the minds of older generations. Real change will come from linking arms with your sisters - once you feel that solidarity and sense of community, that alone is a game-changer.” Jodi wishes for women to stop being competitive with each other, and rather than tear each other down she hopes that they will celebrate and support each other. But most important, she says, is the need for women to encourage themselves. “If you want relationships in your community to change, you need to start with the relationship with yourself. Encourage yourself. If you’re expecting the world to tell you yes, you will be heartbroken.”

Jodi’s attitude about the future is hopeful. She believes in the power of women to create music and build a better jazz world for themselves. When asked to offer a word of advice to young women in jazz, she simply says, “Just enjoy your life. Enjoy music. Find the people you enjoy spending time with. Spend time with them, and make music with them. Good things will happen. Life is amazing. And totally scary and messed-up. So stay positive.”

Want to catch Jodi live? You can see her play this November 8th & 9th as part of Aquarela do Brasil, led by percussionist Sal Ferreras at the Vancouver Playhouse.

Learn more about Jodi’s album-making process along with four other female artists on Sunday, October 14 at the Women in Jazz Association’s Album Q&A Panel. You can download and listen to Sun Songs (2017) here.

For more information on Jodi’s albums, upcoming shows and blog, visit https://jodiproznick.com/.

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