It’s tempting to describe Jen Hodge—female bassist, bandleader, composer, arranger and singer—as a rare phenomenon. But that’s not how she saw herself, growing up surrounded by prominent women doing similar. The Canadian from Vancouver Island set her sights early on a professional bass-playing career and in her mid-thirties—several records and high-profile festivals later—that’s what she’s got. Though it’s not quite the career she expected. It seems almost unbelievable, hearing her beautifully sparse arrangements, but she first took up music in the hopes of one day rocking stadium crowds.
“I’ve been a music nut since I was kid, and I always loved music of all kinds,” Jen said. “My mom’s a Brit, so there was a lot of classical and folk in the house. I really wanted to play rock, so I picked up a guitar aged 11 and right away it was with a career in mind—I was very serious about that from the get-go.” Eager to get as much practice as she could, she applied to join her high school band. The music teacher didn’t want guitarists but was seeking a bassist, so Jen swapped six strings for four.
The electric bass was her passport to any musical outfit in school, including the jazz band—until she turned 16. “The teacher told me, ‘You’re in the senior band now so you have to play a real bass,’” Jen said. “It was so big and unwieldy, but he said, ‘You can learn upright bass, or we’ll get a different bassist.’ So my parents collected me from school in a truck, with the bass. I fell in love with it pretty quick: it’s so versatile and so much fun.”
The instrument led her to Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, and Thelma Terry. “Vancouver Island isn’t the likeliest place to get into jazz—we’re a long way from where it originated, here—but I did.” she explained. Swapping CDs with high school bandmates brought more inspiration. “I gravitated towards a strong groove,” she said, “stuff which swings really hard, with a strong beat you can’t help but move to.”
Around 2002, Jen got work with local wedding bands and community theaters, before moving to “big city” Vancouver. “I thought, ‘If I’m a pro musician one day, I’ll want to have as little debt as possible.’ So Vancouver made more sense than my other options of Montreal or London,” she explained. She attended Capilano University, where she jammed with award-winning trumpeter Bria Skonberg, who now plays with New York’s all-star Town Hall Ensemble. “I met Bria on my first day of school,” said Jen. “She already played in a trad band and was being flown to festivals at 18. So I made friends with her and went to hear her play.”
Jen just couldn’t get enough. “I just thought, ‘This music is great and there are people dancing.’ That definitely appealed to me,” she said. Jen would sometimes sub for the band’s regular bassist, saying yes to whatever opportunities came her way. Through “slow and steady persistence,” plus “never being satisfied that you’re good enough,” she rose from sub to star. “The great cellist Pablo Casals was once asked why he still practiced every day, even in his nineties,” said Jen. “He replied, ‘Because I think I’m getting somewhere.’”
In 2006, Jen and friends started The Company B Jazz Band, with a vocal trio styled after the Andrews or Boswell Sisters. She did a lot of arranging and wound up in the bandleaders’ chair. Booked to play a December 2010 dance, Jen was asked if she could put together a second outfit for November, when that month’s act pulled out. “It was November 13, which was my birthday,” said Jen. “I said sure, I’d love to.” The Jen Hodge Birthday All-Stars were born, with Jen’s favorite players booked to play all her favorite tunes. “It went over really well,” she said. “The guy was really happy and booked us again for spring.”
Around the same time, Vancouver venue Guilt & Company were seeking a house band. “They kept winding up with these great musicians playing very avant garde music, which made people knock the drink back and take off,” she said. A mutual friend put the manager onto Jen’s band, which had by then dropped Birthday from its name. “After one tune the manager said, ‘Oh my god, this is just what I was looking for,’” she recalled. So began a nine-year residency—ample time for Jen to refine her style.
“It became a thing other musicians knew about, a hang with lots of sitting in towards the end,” she said. “Musicians on tour would call and say, ‘Can you use me at your Wednesday gig?’ That was huge for the All-Stars project, and for fostering a community for that type of jazz in Vancouver.”
In 2014, the unit recorded its debut album with four regulars and a few sitters-in. The tracklist comprised their most-played songs at Guilt & Company, inspiring the title Guilty Pleasures. “I’ve been totally thrilled with how my albums have all been received,” Jen said. “Putting an album out is like having a little jazz baby—I’m going to be proud of whatever it achieves. But I’m totally happy if other people respond well, too.”
People responded so well that Jen has played the world’s biggest swing dance festivals including ILHC (Arlington, VA), Lindy Focus (Ashville, NC), Camp Jitterbug (Washington, WA), Fog City Stomp (San Francisco, CA), Sevilla Swing Festival (Seville, Spain) and Herräng Dance Camp (Stockholm, Sweden).
“I think dancing is an important thing to do,” she said. “In some cultures, there’s no separate word for music and dancing. It’s all about rhythm and interaction, improvising and bonding, being creative, having fun and all those great things.” But she also appreciates a sitting audience: “It allows you to express a different side of your musicianship that isn’t always appropriate at dance gigs,” she explained, “like playing something with a bunch of tempo changes.”
Her new disc, The Girl in the Groove, was in the can before 2020. “When the pandemic hit, I was so grateful to have something in my back pocket,” said Jen. “But it’s weird to have to do it without gigs to publicize it at.” A publicist has helped Jen get radio airplay, while swing dancers worldwide have helped promote the album by playing tracks in myriad lockdown Lindy Hop videos. “There was one couple who was dancing to a different track on my new album every day,” said Jen, “so you can still reach people without playing for them in person. I’ve been tagged by people all over the place, which is cool and comforting.”
It’s easy to hear why jitterbuggers and finger-clickers alike would enjoy Jen’s work. Her arrangements bring forth the lesser-appreciated elements of standards, in spacious soundscapes which give every instrument room to breathe. (Check out “Dardanella,” on second album All’s Fair in Love and Jazz, for a great example.) Sometimes her bass takes the lead, with Jen plucking melodies and solos while her bandmates take up the rear. (See “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” on the same disc.) “I’m really inspired by someone like Duke Ellington,” she said. “He’d conceive arrangements with particular people’s musical voices in mind.” Building up from the foundation of each player’s own style promotes new thinking about old material, Jen believes.
And she doesn’t shy away from playing well-worn favorites. (“They’re standards because they’re great. And the possibilities with those songs are almost infinite.”) Sometimes Jen will work a particular legend’s idiomatic style into arrangements of tunes they never played; sometimes she just charts the rhythm section and gives her soloists free reign.
“Sometimes I credit arrangements to the All-Stars instead of Jen Hodge, for those which evolved as a team effort,” she said. “That way, each musician feels seen and heard and it fosters a friendly feeling in the group. I think that’s why some of those sidemen stayed with Ellington their whole careers: because they felt valued.”
It could be called feminine bandleading, by old-fashioned gender norms. Jen doesn’t consider her sex a big deal, but accepts that other people will. “You can’t avoid thinking about it, because it’s been a topic at the forefront,” she said. “But I think one of the reasons I got where I am is because I didn’t think about it much.”
Inspired by female forebears, like her bass “hero” Thelma Terry, she also enjoyed early tuition from top Canadian bassist Jodi Proznick. “Knowing and following Jodi helped me feel like I wasn’t such an anomaly,” said Jen. “And there have been so many successful female instrumentalists to come out of Canada in my lifetime, like Diana Krall, Ingrid Jensen, and Christine Jensen. So it didn’t occur to me how few women were on the older records until much later.”
Touring with Bria in their twenties, Jen did experience some “frustrating attitudes”, but the two women were sustained by mutual solidarity. “We probably didn’t experience a fraction of what Thelma Terry did,” said Jen. “She was so severely bullied and disrespected by the musicians she worked with. Even if some of the sexism I’ve experienced has been discouraging, it’s never shaken the core feeling that this is what I want to do with my life.”