[Dixielandjazz] Alex Pangman interviewed

Robert Ringwald rsr at ringwald.com
Thu Jun 30 21:42:56 PDT 2011

Breathing New Life into Jazz Classics
by Fish Griwkowsky
Edmonton Journal, June 28, 2011
Alex Pangman sings vintage jazz with her own voice -- but with someone else's lungs.
Her story is one of perseverance, life riding on a coin flip, but above all, on beautiful,
undying Depression-era music. The young Toronto musician -- playing the Yardbird
Suite on Tuesday night -- was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a baby, yet has lived
her life to its fullest -- riding horses competitively, stoking her singing career
and having her first album produced by the legendary Jeff Healy in 1999. But her
body insisted on its own destructive agenda.
"By my 30s, I basically whittled away to about 25 per cent," she says over the phone
from Victoria.
The walls were closing in. At that point, Pangman and her songbird voice had won
Songwriter of the Year honours at the National Jazz Awards and a Genie for a performance
in the period film Falling Angels. Her hard work touring and recording in the style
of classic American singers had earned her the name Canada's Sweetheart of Swing.
She'd even joined a swinging country band.
But she kept her illness a secret. "I didn't think it was very romantic to have a
jazz singer who was spitting up blood in the corner," says the redhead. "I'd been
pretty handicapped for my last few years, using an oxygen tank. My world had become
really small, and while I could still sort of sing, it was becoming increasing clear
that I was racing towards the finish. I didn't want anyone to know."
A double lung transplant is an extremely hard choice for anyone, never mind a singer
just a few years into her career. "The subject was brought up very slowly over several
months -- you have to get used to the idea. Denial and anger. The doctor said, 'You
have a 50-per-cent chance of being alive in two years.' I thought, I don't know how
long I'm going to be on the list. And the odds of survival are not very good. But
quite frankly, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I was sick of being
scared of every breath and fighting all the time. My life had been winnowed away
to a shadow."
The surgery took place in 2008 in Toronto. Someone Pangman will never know saved
her through organ donation of a set of lungs. As she puts it, "you gave me everything."
Asked if she made promises to herself if she survived, she says: "My deal was I was
always really private about my health, but if I got through this, I would be public
about my help so I could inspire some change and raise awareness. It's really important
you speak to your family because they're the ones that sign on the dotted line (to
donate an organ).
"My ability to breathe and make music was taken from me over many, many years, slowly.
That in the space of an eight-hour surgery, all of a sudden I could sing again and
I could complete my MO -- which was to get out there and live life and make music
and have a band and enjoy -- it's crazy. It's the big things but it's also the small
things, being able to run up the stairs, it's just a miracle."
Her cadence even expanded. She can sing deeper now.
Another way Pangman is giving back is with her music. Her latest album, 33, is sparkling
and timeless, its songs picked from those popular in 1933. "As much as I like the
music from the 1930s," she laughs, "I'm really glad I wasn't born then." Indeed,
she wouldn't be here today.
Pangman worked on the album last year when she was 33, meaning she can continue this
age-and-year pattern indefinitely -- an album of Second World War songs when she's
42, a psychedelic tribute when she turns 67 and in her 80s, she jokes, "Yeah, Cyndi
Lauper! I'll be glad to be that old!"
Next up, Pangman will release a collection of songs she did with American guitarist
Bucky Pizzarelli. "He's just a gem. I don't know if I want to release it as an EP
or get him back in the studio. He actually just recorded a record with Paul McCartney,
so the stakes may have been raised."
In the end, like her music, the singer is straightforward about it all. "It's not
a cure, but it's a treatment, it's a last option, but like you say, without it I
wouldn't be here. People with chronic illness have to be positive and have to be
fighters. I went to university for art and art history and I didn't really want to
do that. Something within got me to go out and do what I wanted to do, to sing. I
had always wanted to do the jazz festival circuit, but my illness was pretty chronic
and I just couldn't do it. Now, I've not only been able to live my life again, but
I can make art again.
"We were standing onstage last night in Victoria and we had a standing ovation and
I was like, 'Pinch me!' Who knows when the meteor's going to drop or you'll get hit
by a bus! Get out there and do what you like doing."

--Bob Ringwald
Fulton Street Jazz Band
530/ 642-9551 Office
916/ 806-9551 Cell
Amateur (Ham) Radio K6YBV

"Politicians and diapers should be changed often and for the same reason."

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