It’s not every day that we get to interview a well-respected singer and songwriter who also doubles as a school teacher, but today isn’t like every other day now is it? We’d like to get you acquainted with Diana Panton, a JUNO Award-winning jazz artist who has released eight critically-acclaimed independent albums. Her more recent music is primarily geared towards a family audience with it meant to be accessible not only to adults but also to children who are beginning to grow an interest in music. Currently living in Hamilton, Ontario, Panton balances her successful jazz career with one in teaching high school where she specializes in French, drama and the arts. It’s a busy life, but one that she loves which gives her an outlet to immerse herself in the best of both worlds.
Panton’s success has not been limited to Canadian success either, as she has been recognized with awards in places as far and wide as France and Japan. Her latest release is her brand new family album, A Cheerful Little Earful, a collection of positive songs gathered from the Great American Songbook, as well as children’s classics well known to those who have grown up with Sesame Street and Disney films. The record acts as a sequel to her first Juno-winning children’s recording, 2015’s I Believe In Little Things which charted well on both the Billboard Jazz and Children’s Music charts. These albums are designed to inspire young people to connect with not only jazz but to begin to understand the fun and thrill that music can entice in people.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Diana for a thorough chat about her careers in both music and teaching, how she got into being both a musician and a teacher, her new album A Cheerful Little Earful, and opening children up to the often overlooked world of jazz music.
I have interviewed probably well over one hundred musicians now and I believe you are the first I have ever spoken to that is both an award-winning artist and high school French, drama and art teacher. The most obvious question, to begin with, is, what pursuit came first? Becoming a recording artist or teaching?
Diana Panton: “They actually happened fairly simultaneously. I began singing jazz while in high school studying French, art, and drama. At that time, I was part of a 24-piece community jazz ensemble which I continued to do as I completed a Masters’s degree in French Literature with a minor in Music. I recorded my first solo album in August 2004 and began my first high school teaching position in September of that same year.”
I’m sure your students are aware of the fact that you have a very successful and well-recognized career outside of your day job. How do your students tend to view your career? Do they often have questions about it?
Panton: “I teach Grade 9 and given that they are new students to the high school, they are often unaware of my singing career. They usually are quite surprised when they first find out. I am pretty discreet about my singing at school. However, I do get students who are young jazz aficionados that come up and introduce themselves (even if they are not always in my class). It is always nice to find people who have a shared passion for the music.”
Being an experienced, successful musician, it must assist you in being a well-rounded teacher. Do you tend to use it as a teaching tool? Or do you prefer to keep the two worlds separate?
Panton: “I do keep the two worlds separate. However, jazz informs my whole life philosophy, including teaching. In jazz, it is important to know the changes, the structure of a piece, but once you state the melody, you can improvise and interact with the musicians with whom you are working to create something unique and in the moment. Similarly, in teaching, you prepare a lesson, but you also let the students weigh in and add to the dynamic so that each time you teach the same material it is different.”
Diana Panton’s second children’s jazz album A Cheerful Little Earful was released on October 18th, 2019:
Now despite the joy I’m sure you derive from being in education, it’s no secret that being a teacher is difficult right now under the current Ontario government who are continuously trying to cut education funding by hundreds of millions of dollars. And it’s unfortunate that the arts are one of the areas that are the primary targets for cuts. Is it tense times right now being an arts teacher?
Panton: “Unfortunately, the arts are always targeted when it comes to funding cuts and yet, study after study confirms how valuable they are to a student’s brain development, problem-solving skills, personal growth and sense of well-being. The arts are critical, not only in schools but in society. We must fight for the arts for what is a community without them?”
I’m sure you can’t get into too much detail, but has the current political situation made it somewhat discouraging for you looking towards the future being a teacher?
Panton: “I don’t feel discouraged because I see communities rallying together and fighting for what is right. Education and kids matter, so I believe these things will prevail despite the current political situation.”
Let’s move on to your other career now, music and your new family album, A Cheerful Little Earful. Would you say that this is a Christmas record full of the holiday spirit?
Panton: “A Cheerful Little Earful is not a Christmas record (that is to say it doesn’t contain Christmas material). That said, I think my four-year-old self would have been thrilled to find an album like this in her Christmas stocking. I didn’t get my first taste of jazz until late into high school, but I can only imagine how amazing it would have been to discover this music sooner. A Cheerful Little Earful contains songs that will also be recognized by an older audience familiar with jazz standards, so the album could be the catalyst for conversation across generations at family gatherings over the holidays. It is a joyful album full of happy songs, so it could definitely accompany the season’s festivities. Incidentally, I did record an actual seasonal album a few years ago, titled Christmas Kiss.”
What was your original intention for A Cheerful Little Earful? And did the album turn out the same way that you envisioned from the get-go?
Panton: “I intended A Cheerful Little Earful as a sequel to my first children’s album, I Believe in Little Things. The first album was slightly more introspective, offering generally quieter tunes and gentler tempos with the idea of getting kids ready for bed. The new album is a collection of cheery tunes to start the day and accompany activities. I think the two albums make good companion pieces. I have had a good response from kids and their parents and grandparents, so I think the music accomplished what I set out to do.”
You worked in tandem on this record with the highly accomplished team of Don Thompson and Reg Schwager. How did Don and Reg become involved in the project?
Panton: “Don and Reg have appeared on all nine of my recording projects to date. They were with me on the first recording session back in 2004, and we have been performing as a trio ever since. Initially, I met Don backstage at a concert where my community band was the opening act. He suggested I apply to attend a workshop at the Banff Centre For The Arts. I did, and there I got to do a concert with Don, after which he invited me to record with him. I waited ten years to take him up on his offer, but when I finally called him, he luckily remembered me and well, the rest is history.”
Was this a full-on collaboration between the three of you? Or are they more there for assistance and to bounce ideas off of?
Panton: “I research the tunes and compile a master list. Don will play through them with me on the piano so we can see which ones feel right. It’s a little like trying on clothes and seeing which garments suit the best. Once the final songs have been selected, Don creates exquisite tailor-made arrangements. Reg never sees the material (nor does he know the setlist) prior to the studio, so what you hear on the recordings is normally our first or second time through playing the songs together as a group. As such, the recording is a very spontaneous and organic process. For the recording segment, it is definitely a full-on collaboration in the studio, there is no leader, and everything happens on a mutual wavelength.”
Jazz isn’t typically a genre that children are exposed to. Is part of the attempt with your music to introduce children to the wide and wonderful world of jazz?
Panton: “Absolutely! A few years back, there was a particular week when I received numerous emails from parents saying they used certain renditions of my songs to tuck their kids into bed at night. I figured that if the kids and their parents were responding positively to this music, then why not create a whole album that was lyrically suited to young listeners?”
Fred Penner is probably the most widely recognized children’s musician in all of Canada through the last 40 years. Was he a very inspiring figure for you when you were getting into this career that you tried to learn from?
Panton: “Fred is a great children’s entertainer, but I wasn’t familiar with his music growing up. Actually, I grew up hearing Raffi, as well as Sharon, Lois, and Bram when I was little. It was a great honour to be nominated for a JUNO alongside Raffi for my first children’s record and for the upcoming JUNOs, alongside Sharon and Bram for my second children’s record. That said, I met Fred at the JUNOs in Hamilton a few years back. He was very gracious and demonstrated a genuine interest in his craft and dedication to children. I admired that very much in him.”
Speaking of Fred Penner, I remember as a young child, my parents took me at least a few times to his live shows. Do you get the opportunity to perform live family shows or ever go on a full-fledge tour?
Panton: “I can recall going to see plays, but not concerts when I was little. Musicals made a big impact on me and they introduced me to many songs. Yes, I have performed live shows for families, but never a full children’s tour. I have a free concert coming up for families on April 5th in partnership with the Hamilton organization called An Instrument For Every Child (AIFEC) that raises money to buy instruments and provide musical programming for kids that might not otherwise have access. All are welcome!”