Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Would you believe…I have only just heard about jazz singer Diana Panton, and I feel like I have been living under a rock? An alumna of the prestigious Banff Center for the Arts, she has won two Juno Awards, one for her album RED (2015) and another for her recording I Believe in Little Things (2017), an album for children which charted on Billboard’s Jazz and Children’s Music Charts and reached Number 1 on iTunes and Amazon in Canada and the US.
Despite her renown, Panton’s name was new to me when I listened to a preview of A Cheerful Little Earful, her second album for children. Experiencing the album without preconception was like unwrapping an unexpected gift. It is a delightful record, and Panton is a terrific singer. The novel arrangements spotlight her considerable vocal prowess, in service of an idea born from her young listeners’ response to her album if the moon turns green: “The first album recording was prompted by parents telling me they used some of my quieter jazz songs to put their children to sleep,” Panton recalls. This planted the seed to record an album entirely dedicated to young listeners. “When I set out, I had no idea to what age level I Believe in Little Things would appeal.” Age 4, it turned out, was the “sweet spot”, but kids of all ages, their parents and their grandparents wrote to tell her how much they enjoyed the music. To her surprise, the album charted simultaneously on Billboard’s Jazz and Kids’ Charts, which she saw as proof that “this music can appeal to listeners of all ages”. This positive feedback encouraged her to record the sequel, A Cheerful Little Earful.
When sourcing music for the first album, she had come across some “zippier songs” which, although great, didn’t fit the gentle vibe of Little Things. So she put these songs aside for a potential future project. “When I came across a Cheerful Little Earful, I knew I had found the title track that would bring these happy songs together conceptually.” The songs are drawn from the Great American Songbook and children’s classics ranging from Sesame Street to Walt Disney. The whimsical arrangements by Juno-Award winning musician Don Thompson (who also plays bass, piano and vibraphone on the album) highlight Panton’s bright, playful interpretations.
Although Panton selected the songs specifically to make people smile, she grants that there are a couple of “introverted gems” with a positive message, including two of her very favourites: “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” and “Music and Me”. The first is a Jeff Moss composition that was written for Ernie to sing on Sesame Street. “The lovely lyrics remind us of that old Wizard of Oz sentiment: no matter where we go or what we see, ‘there’s no place like home’.”
The second is of more personal significance. “Music and Me” tells the story of the role of music in Panton’s own life: “As the lyrics state, ‘Only know, wherever I go, we’re as close as two friends can be’. Music has always been a friend to me – it has stood beside me through happy and sad times. It has grown with me and helped me become the person I am today.” Panton cites Stevie Wonder to encapsulate this belief: “Music at its essence is what gives us memories. And the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it.”
Given her talent and success, it might surprise her fans to know that she didn’t hear much vocal music growing up. Her father listened to classical instrumental music in the house, so that tended to be what she heard. Most of the vocal music she liked came from musicals that she watched on TV, such as My Fair Lady, The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music. Indeed, Panton credits Julie Andrews and Judy Garland as her first influences. It wasn’t until her late teens that she stumbled upon jazz: “It happened one night in our living room when my dad played an Ella Fitzgerald record,” she recalls. “Turns out he was quite the jazz aficionado in his younger years and had a secret stash of jazz LPs I had never seen before that night. Anyway, Ella’s voice caught my ear right away. Before long, I had exhausted my dad’s jazz LP collection and moved on to the public library, signing out the maximum number of CDs and tapes each week. Here I discovered Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, who along with Ella became my top three influences.”
In addition to being an multi-awarding-winning recording artist with a calendar of live performances, Panton is also a secondary teacher at the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board. Navigating two demanding careers makes for a “constant balancing act.” However, her abiding passion for both spheres fuels her for the challenge. Whenever possible, she tries to schedule recording dates and performances during school breaks: “There is not much down time, but so far, so good,” she smiles.
Anticipating the release of A Cheerful Little Earful, Panton admits to a sliver of apprehension that adults may assume the music on it is too complex for younger listeners to appreciate. She grants this album sounds different from most musical offerings on the market for children today. That said, she seems to have little to worry about, judging by the emails from parents of four year-olds reporting that Little Things is their favourite album, accompanied by videos of their kids singing the songs. She is deeply gratified, and hopes that A Cheerful Little Earful will reach an even larger audience: “It warms my heart and gives me hope for the future of jazz that there are little people out there connecting with this genre at such a young age.”
Recalling her own early youth, she smiles: “I’m pretty sure my four-year old self would have been delighted to hear this music.”
News You Can Use
What: A Cheerful Little Earful, featuring Diana Panton (vocals), Reg Schwager (guitar), Don Thompson (bass, piano, vibraphone)
Who: Listeners of all ages
When: Now available for purchase and download
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / Sesayarts Magazine, 2019