Having been interested in music from an early age, Leah Pogwizd started turning toward jazz in her early teens.
“I was getting bored playing classical music and rock and I liked the challenge of learning improvisation,” she said. “I got interested in ethnomusicology when I was a junior in college because I loved learning about music from around the world. Also, my training in jazz has made it easier to play in various world music ensembles because I know how to listen for rhythm, harmony and other musical elements.”
The homeschooled Pogwizd turned to college of DuPage while still in high school.
“I wanted to get plugged in with music lessons and ensembles outside of a traditional high school setting and I wanted to start taking college courses. I also got plugged in early on with the Honors Program and the Student Activities Program Board (now Alter Ego Productions), both of which enriched my experience at COD,” she said.
“I had some amazing mentors – Tom Tallman gave me strong foundations in jazz and musicianship, Alice Snelgrove taught me how to write, and Steve Schroeder helped me develop as a public speaker. I still use all three skillsets – especially while I was teaching college classes and writing my dissertation. Also, because I took so many general education classes at COD, I was able to focus almost exclusively on music when I transferred to my four-year institution, University of North Texas.”
Having earned an Associate in Fine Arts from COD and then a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies from University of North Texas, she then went to the University of Washington and earned both her master’s and Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology. Her dissertation was titled “Sound Judgments: Authenticity, Hierarchy, and Learning among Seattle Jazz Musicians.”
“I came into the program with romantic fantasies of traveling the world and learning exotic music,” she said. “Instead, I ended up doing research locally and focused on jazz musicians a lot like me. My dissertation was about how jazz musicians negotiate different performance standards from instructors, other musicians and general audiences.”
While in Washington, Pogwizd taught workshops, beginner-level ensembles and classes at Jazz Night School, through which she hosted a series of monthly jam sessions to provide a non-intimidating environment for musicians of all levels to gain experience playing on-the-spot. She also was a bassist for the Seattle Women’s Jazz Orchestra, which encourages female participation in jazz through concerts, clinics and a composition contest for female composers/arrangers.
Her initiative Nanoversity of Jazz was a digital platform for “Byte-Sized Musicianship.” Having moved to Alabama, Pogwizd has switched Nanoversity to tiny instrument academy after an injury to her hand forced her to temporarily change to melodica, a tiny keyboard instrument that she could play with one hand. She then began playing ubass (bass ukulele) and eventually cajon (an Afro-Peruvian box percussion instrument) and baritone ukulele (which has the top four strings of a guitar).
“While I just started the academy, my plan is to teach easy, jazz-inspired arrangements of pop tunes,” she said. “The project incorporates my interests and training in jazz, ethnomusicology, popular music studies and instructional design. I’m very excited to showcase these fun and accessible instruments!”
Pogwizd also co-founded Birmingham Institute of Jazz with her partner, Michael Saddekni. Although temporarily constrained by COVID, their goal is to make jazz education accessible to learners of all ages in Birmingham and beyond.
“I’m enjoying getting back to teaching jazz bass as well as bassline construction and solo improvisation. I was really fortunate to be able to learn jazz improvisation as a teenager at COD, but Michael wasn’t so lucky. We want to make sure that everyone who wants to learn how to improvise has a chance to do so.”
As for COD, Pogwizd believes it is a great placeto cultivate versatility as a musician or scholar.
“You have the freedom to explore a lot of different things, but you’re still required to develop competency in key areas,” she said. “Another great thing about the Music program is that you can go so many different ways with it. There are folks who’ve been playing in one ensemble each term for years, just for the enjoyment of it, and there are people like me who used the program as a launching point for several advanced degrees.
“I don’t really ‘fit the mold’ for a lot of the things that I do, and COD was one of the few environments that I’ve been in where this was a non-issue. For students who feel the same way, I assure you that the things that make you different – whatever they may be – will eventually become your biggest assets. You just need to be dedicated, resilient and patient.”