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Volume 15 Issue 10 - July/August 2010

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  • Festival
  • Jazz
  • Toronto
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Alex Pangman: The Gift

Alex Pangman: The Gift of Lifeo r i d a g a nCourage, strength and wonder: three little words that merelyscratch the surface of Alex Pangman’s inspirational story.But before going into details concerning her health andheroism, here’s a prelude to her music.Seated on her grandpa’s knee some 30 years ago, “FiveFoot Two, Eyes of Blue” was the first jazz song Pangmanrecalls hearing. Today the five-foot four-inch turquoise-eyed singer isknown as “Canada’s Sweetheart of Swing,” a title the Mississauga nativehas earned by remaining unflinchingly faithful to American popularmusic of the 1920s, 30s and 40s.Her world was turned upside-down, as if “discovering a new continent,”when she fell hard for jazz in her teens. Her debut performancewith an equestrian friend’s band singing Bessie Smith’s “NobodyKnows You When You’re Down and Out” at the SchnitzelHouse (“with my back to theaudience ‘cause I was so nervous”)was a hit.One gig led to another, andit wasn’t long before the lategreat Jeff Healey fell under hermusical spell, labeling Pangman“the greatest current exponentof the classic Americansong.” Healey, unparalleledas a musician, historianand mentor, went on to produceher first two recordings,They Say (1999) and Can’t StopMe From Dreaming (2001) onSensation Records. The selfproducedAlex Pangman andHer Alleycats Live at the MontrealJazz Festival (2005) wascaptured live before an enthusedaudience. Pretty soonshe was booked to collaboratewith everyone from Grammynominatedtrumpeter Kevin Clark and the suave Denzal Sinclaire tocharismatic pianist Tyler Yarema and even Jim Galloway’s All-Stars.Apart from possessing a warm, honey-like tone and a dandy dedicationto diction, Pangman is a sophisticated storyteller who takesgreat pride in stories worth telling. Throughout her career she hasmanaged to unearth more treasures from yesteryear than just aboutanybody:“While I know the pleasure and familiarity that playing a standardgives an audience,” she begins, “and I place them throughout my set,I absolutely love these obscure little gems. It’s like exploring unminedarcheology, discovering the “not-so-standard standards”: songs thatfor whatever reason never got as hackneyed as, say, “All of Me” – abeautiful song to be sure, but done to excess. It is always my pleasureto dig up a forgotten gem, and really there are many timeless gemsthat have been – for whatever circumstances – waylaid from infamy.”In the hands of Pangman, virtually unknown gems like “Throughthe Courtesy of Love,” “I’ll Never Say ‘Never Again’ Again” and “IHad Someone Else Before I Had You” are given a second chance atlife. In addition to such discoveries, occasionally the singer delvesinto compositions of her own, as in the case with “Melancholy Lullaby”from her second album:“I’m pretty loyal to the old style of songwriting which I love sodearly,” explains Pangman, “but for me the timing has to be right.The emotions need to be clear, the house needs to be mine, and I generallysit at the piano alone and perhaps pick out the melody, with thelyrics accompanying this process. On the rare occasion that I coin anew song – let’s face it, the Great American Songbook has made me alazy songwriter – I usually will slide a “new song” into a set list withouttelling the boys where it came from. If they just assume it’s anotherof the 1930s fare I’m used to unearthing then I know it’s a goody. Iguess my aim is for my songs to seem as timeless as I find so much ofthe music from that era to be.”It’s nothing short of remarkable that Pangman is one of this country’smost breathtaking jazz singers, given that she was born with cysticfibrosis. This incurable genetic disease debilitates the lungs, causespersistent shortness of breath, frequent pulmonary inflammation andin many cases ultimately requires lung transplantation.And that’s exactly what it came down to by late 2008. By that autumn,Pangman was in a devastatingly fragile state, requiring an oxygentank for simple tasks like getting dressed and walking her dog.Down to 27 percent of herlung capacity, a double lungtransplant became her onlyhope, and she was on a waitinglist for six agonizing months.Thankfully and very luckily,a donor came through just intime. On November 4, 2008,Pangman was given a secondchance at life. This is how sherecollects that life-changingday:“It was 9:07 am preciselywhen my cell phone rang at mybedside. I had just slipped intoa nice dream about washingmy hair when the phone wokeme with a startle. ‘Hello, thisis Toronto General Hospitalcalling. We may have a set oflungs for you today. We needyou to come to admitting rightaway.’”She continues: “At the hospital I got admitted, x-rayed, ECG’d,blood-sucked, swabbed, looked over, and autographed by the surgeonso quickly! As we were all sitting around feeling anxious, the door tomy room swung open and the nurse announced triumphantly, ‘1 pm –Operating Room time!’“Now, saying goodbye to the ones who raised me wasn’t easy, butit all happened so quickly, I just did it. I handed over my glasses forsafekeeping. A hug from Mom over the side of the gurney cannotpossibly encapsulate the love or gratitude one feels for the lifetimeof unconditional love, or can it? Another hug from Dad who said heloved me (something Dad finds easier to express through car washesand greeting cards) with the added, ‘Kick some butt!’“And then I turned to Tom, my sweet handsome groom, whoseeyes were filled with tears of joy and fear and gladness and everything.I looked at him wondering if it’d be the last time, or just thelast time with these lungs. But taking my eyes off him was very hardto do. This could be the start of something big! Then the stretcherstarted to roll away and I think I remember mother nervously joking,‘I suppose I should be offended that she’s exchanging something Igave her!’ (the lungs).“I pulled a smile, sort of excited and shy to roll into the O.R. andfound it much smaller than I’d imagined. ‘Is this where it’s going tohappen?’ I remember asking. Despite my lack of glasses (I’m not thatshort sighted!) I saw a group of focused people all at work. Someonecontinued on page 62 …pHOTO sTEvE payNE8 THEWHOLENOTE.COMJuly 1 - September 7, 2010

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