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Ostara Project’s radical existence in the face of jazz’s gender problem

Ostara’s goal is to put the spotlight on women until gender parity isn’t a rarity in jazz
Members of The Ostara Project are performing at the Yukon Arts Centre on Nov. 6 and will give a talk on Nov. 9 at the Old Fire Hall. Clockwise from top left: Amanda Tosoff, Allison Au, Virginia MacDonald, Shruti Ramani, Jodi Proznick, Rachel Therrien and Valerie Lacombe. (Submitted)

Amy Kenny

Yukon Arts Centre

The Ostara Project wants to work itself out of a job. That’s what Lisa Buck says. Buck is the Calgary-based band manager for the Canadian jazz supergroup, comprised entirely of women. That lineup is intentional, Buck says. A show starring seven accomplished jazz musicians who just happen to be women is meant to make you realize how rare it is even to see even one woman onstage at a jazz show.

“A lot of people are kind of stunned when you say that five per cent of the professional community (in jazz) is female,” says Buck, who also serves as executive director of Calgary’s salon-style music series, BuckingJam Palace. “Five. That’s not right,” she says.

That’s why Ostara’s goal is to put the spotlight, both literally and figuratively, on women until jazz gets to a place where gender parity isn’t a rarity.

“I’m in my 40s now,” says Juno-nominated bassist, Jodi Proznick, one of Ostara’s founders. “And for the first, I don’t know, probably half of my career or more, I didn’t really pay a whole lot attention to the fact that I was, most of the time, the only woman in most (performing) spaces. I was on the bandstand and pretty much played with men, most of the time, aside from vocalists. That’s the place that you would be most likely to work with another woman or someone non-binary.”

Proznick says she felt a sort of mutual awareness cropping up among the women she did know who were involved in jazz. They all seemed to be asking themselves the same question at the same time: How is this happening and why?

“And then it turns into, okay, well, what can I do about it?” she says. Advocacy work was an option. Research was another. Proznick turned to the solution she usually lands on though, which was to make art.

“Art speaks for itself,” she says. “It’s an invitation. It’s not a dictation. It’s not me standing up there pontificating, which I love to do, but this way the art speaks for itself.”

She reached out to a wishlist of women she herself had always wanted to work with and started Ostara. The lineup has been fluid, with musicians rotating in and out as their individual careers allow. This fall, when The Ostara Project visits the Yukon, it will feature Proznick, along with Shruti Ramani, Virginia MacDonald, Allison Au, Rachel Therrien, Amanda Tosoff and Valerie Lacombe.

Together, Jazz Yukon and the Yukon Arts Centre are bringing Ostara to the St. Elias Convention Centre in Haines Junction for a performance on Nov. 5. There will be a Jazz on the Wing performance at the Yukon Arts Centre on Nov. 6. Then the collective will complete a three-day residency Whitehorse.

Proznick says that residency will give the musicians, who are scattered across the country, time to work together on some songs for their second album—a follow-up to 2022’s self-titled debut.

It will also allow them to tap into the Yukon’s local creativity, as visual artist Joyce Majski will join them to create her own work as they play. Gurdeep Pandher will also attend the residency, bringing his dancing.

That’s something Proznick is especially excited about because it’s one more way for Ostara to expand its own musical vocabulary. The influence of artists working in different mediums has an impact similar to something Ostara is doing right now within jazz. As a group, Proznick says they’re exploring the idea of Canada as a place full of people who, outside of Indigenous Canadians, all come from somewhere else. Ostara members are interested in weaving their individual ancestral backgrounds into their music in a way that creates something new. Similarly, Proznick says, working with different types of artists will open you up creatively.

“There’s a richness that comes through when you’re looking at an idea through multiple languages,” she says, whether those languages are linguistic or artistic.

The residency culminates on Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. with a free, open house event at the Old Fire Hall. This includes the premiere screening of Change the Tune, a short documentary that tells the story of Canadian women in jazz, and what the jazz genre could be with everyone working toward the same goals. The screening will be followed by a talk and some music.

“I love the phrase that when the tide comes in all boats float,” says Buck. “That’s our image. We’re just trying to raise the opportunity for everyone so that a healthy environment is going to benefit the music and it’s going to move everyone’s careers forward.”