How Jodi Proznick became one of Canada’s best jazz bassists

Brad Barker is JAZZ.FM91’s music director and on-air host

Juno-nominated musician Jodi Proznick is one of the best bassists in the country, having played with the likes of Guido Basso, Kirk MacDonald, Don Thompson and Sheila Jordan, along with her own groups.

The Vancouver-based artist has won numerous National Jazz Awards, and just this year her latest album Sun Songs featuring Laila Biali was nominated for a Juno Award for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year. Prior to that, her debut album Foundations was nominated for a Juno in 2006. In addition to her original work, she’s also been featured on more than 40 recordings as a side player.

While she was in Toronto for a show with our own Heather Bambrick, Proznick joined us here at JAZZ.FM91 to talk about how she first became a bassist, and how she came to finally realize and acknowledge that being a professional musician was her calling.

Scroll to the bottom if you’d like to listen to the full audio of the interview.

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Your dad was the first one who got you involved in playing bass? 

It’s kind of a funny story. I was the eldest daughter. My father had a big music program out in Surrey, B.C. He was a band director. I was moving my way into his program. And like the good eldest daughter I said, “Dad, what instrument is your dream instrument? What do you want me to play in your band?” … And he said, “I want you to play oboe.” And I said, “OK, of course, Dad, I’ll play the oboe.” I was a very placating daughter at the time — that changed. But anyway, I played oboe for a year in the Grade 7 band … They found some old oboe with leaky pads and a fibercane reed, and they put me front and centre in the middle of that concert band, and I was trying to get a sound… and when I did get a sound it was loud and terrible. I just was horrified by the whole experience. Bless all those oboe players, because I know they all start there, but they were way more resilient than me.

It’s a hard instrument, right?

It’s really hard, and you’re really exposed. So I wrote (my dad) a letter, and I ran into the bedroom and put it on his dresser. “Dear Dad, I do not want to play the oboe anymore. I’m really, really sorry, but if there’s another instrument you need, I’m happy to do whatever.” And he went, “Oh, I need a bass player in the Grade 9 big band.” So my little Grade 8 brain went, I get to go on band trips a year early, I get to play an instrument I don’t see a lot of girls playing, and he doesn’t know how to play it.

So the feedback wouldn’t be quite as abundant.

None! He got me a book that told me what the notes were, and then I started playing La Bamba and Stand By Me on electric bass. Also, I was at the back of the band, and I didn’t have to solo. I could read music really well, so it was kind of easy.

So that support role was the most comfortable.

Totally. I’m an introverted extrovert. I didn’t pick bass because I wanted to be a bandleader or a composer or a front-person. I just want to be in a supportive role.

It’s not like no woman has played bass, but it is somewhat unique. Do you find that to be something that people are still remarking upon, or are we past that?

Oh no, people still get very excited when they see me. “Oh! That’s so great. That’s so amazing!”

When did it go from being, “I can go on trips and stuff,” to being something that you felt could be a career?

Funnily enough, it wasn’t even until the very end of high school. I didn’t really imagine it as a career path. I was a ballet dancer, a straight-A student. I loved Ray Brown, I saw Dizzy Gillespie play before he died … and I was watching these bands at the Idaho jazz festival and my mind was blown. But I didn’t really see myself up there, so it didn’t really occur to me that it was even really a possibility. It wasn’t until the very end of high school when I got some scholarship money and had other people looking at me and saying “yes!” So other people were seeing things in me that I couldn’t even imagine for myself. It was very gradual. I got into McGill, and then I quit performance because I was like, “Yeah, nah. I’m going to be a band teacher.” There was no plan. There was no vision board.

It almost sounds like your talent superseded your desire. You didn’t have a clear vision, but your talent was always in the way. 

I don’t think there was some innate ability. Just being in a musical family, environment is everything. That’s just what we did: We played, we sang, we danced. Talent gets you into school, and at a certain point you have to make a decision to do the work required — and that’s perseverance more than anything. It wasn’t as though I was goal-centred, like I’m going to get a Juno nomination or I’m going to be a bandleader. It was: I want to do my best. I want to serve this gig really well. So it was wholehearted gig after wholehearted gig. It took me a long time to really own it: “OK, I guess I am doing this.”

That sounds like the best way to approach it.

I often get students who are really stressed about how to do this, how to do that, how to market, and I say… just practise and enjoy that. Enjoy making music with people, and everything else will take care of itself.