Hamilton jazz singer up for Juno 'a complete original'
The Canadian Press
Published Friday, March 27, 2009 3:43PM EDT
TORONTO - Back in February, Hamilton high-school teacher Diana Panton was summoned from her classroom by her principal.
She had a phone call and it couldn't wait. Naturally, she assumed the worst.
"I said: `It's an emergency? I can't get it later?"' Panton recalls. "He said: `You'd better get it now."'
As it turns out, it was a reporter calling to tell Panton she'd been nominated for a Juno Award -- vocal jazz album of the year, for "If the Moon Turns Green."
Panton, who teaches French, art and drama, was shocked. She hadn't even realized that nominations were about to be released.
"Nothing got sent to me about the announcement of the nominations," she says, "so it kind of came out of the blue for me."
Since her debut "Yesterday Perhaps" was released in 2005, acclaim for Panton has been steadily growing, with local raves turning to national attention -- and now, the nomination for this Sunday's Juno Awards in Vancouver (CTV, check local listings).
The singer, who functions as her own manager, booking agent, publicist and record label, has maintained control over virtually every part of her career. Though she was caught off guard by the nomination, her peers weren't.
"She's a complete original. She doesn't do anything like anybody else," says veteran Canadian jazz musician Don Thompson, who has frequently collaborated with Panton.
Thompson first met Panton when she was 19 and finishing up her time as a student at Westdale Secondary School, where she now teaches. She was a member of the Hamilton All-Star Jazz Band, and Thompson was impressed when he heard her sing at one of their concerts.
He sought her out backstage and told her to call him when she was ready to record a CD. She took him up on it -- 10 years later.
"At the time, I was like: `No way! I'm not ready to record,"' she says. "But I was really honoured that he asked. I definitely kept it in mind. When I phoned again, I wasn't sure if he'd even remember who I was."
But Thompson did remember. He says he rarely sees people as skilled as Panton.
"She's got a huge talent, there's no question about that," says Thompson, whose "For Kenny Wheeler" is up for a Juno for traditional jazz album of the year.
"It's a beautiful sound she has, and an unusual vibrato that she uses. But the most important thing, I think, is that direct honesty. Because when she sings, there's absolutely nothing that you could ever not believe."
Panton, for her part, cites a diverse array of influences from the jazz world, which she grew to love while listening to her dad's old records as a child.
She was already singing from a young age.
"I can recall at six years old I used to make up my own songs when I was walking home (from school) and be quite into them," she says. "So the singing was kind of always there."
But she didn't start performing in front of an audience until she was challenged by her mother.
"My sister started doing plays and at 13 I went to see one, and I guess I was overly critical of the production," Panton remembers. "And my mom said something to the effect of: `I suppose you think you could do a better job.'
"I was dared to try out, basically, and I said, 'OK, fine, I'll do it."'
Panton has been gradually adding more performances over the last few years, but says she's not necessarily able to perform even monthly because of her obligations as a teacher.
She says she enjoys teaching and the financial security that provides, and can't see herself leaving her day job behind.
"There's various options I'd consider there," she says. "I'd combine them slightly if the music was starting to take up more time."
As it is, Panton is occupied with work that few musicians handle themselves. She arranges for the distribution of her albums herself, she takes care of having her CDs printed and books all her own gigs.
She says she'd have a hard time giving up that control.
"I don't think I could relinquish that very easily," she says. "I enjoy that part. I enjoy coming up with all the ideas.
"I'm always way ahead of myself. I already have three or four albums ready in my mind. I know what they're going to look like."