When a Juno doesn’t pay the bills: 5-time nominee moonlights as a school teacher

Juno winner pays the bills working as a school teacher

TORONTO — Diana Panton is leading a double life.

The Hamilton high school teacher hasn’t told her students much about her other career as a Juno-winning jazz musician, but as she contends for a trophy at Saturday’s Juno Awards gala dinner it’s getting hard to dodge the subject.

“If I’m trying to do the ‘Clark Kent,’ it’s a bit hard,” she laughs. “They usually find out at some point.”

Like many of her fellow Juno Award nominees, particularly in smaller genres like reggae and world music, she’s all too familiar with juggling professions.

Panton is nominated this year for “I Believe in Little Things,” a fusion of jazz and kids’ music. It’s her first nod in the children’s album of the year category, after four previous nominations — and one win — for best vocal jazz album.

While her days are spent in the classroom, her nights are all about performing music. Rarely do the two paths intertwine.

“In the classroom it’s not about me, it’s about them,” says the Westdale Secondary School visual arts and drama teacher.

“To me it’s not really that relevant.”

She doesn’t tell her students about winning a Juno for her album “Red” two years ago — or that somebody else put the trophy on her mantle because she was reluctant to show it off.

They also don’t know Panton simultaneously topped the Billboard jazz and kids’ album charts last year — a feat so rare that staff at the music sales tabulator called her to make sure there wasn’t a mistake.

Over the years she’s played a music festival in Russia and often gets Japanese parents uploading videos of their kids singing her music.

A few weeks ago, while her students were on March Break, Panton was holed up in a Toronto studio knocking out her next album. Making the most out of her “working holidays,” be it Easter, Victoria Day or Christmas, has become a tradition of sorts.

“For me, there’s not really breaks,” she says. “There’s just a switching of scenery.”

Panton — who doesn’t reveal her age, calling it “top secret” — stumbled into a life of two professions after graduating from university with a masters in French literature.

The teacher-to-be, who for years performed in Hamilton’s 24-piece all-star jazz band, embarked on a trip abroad and promised herself she wouldn’t leave her creativity behind. She pledged to record her first album when she returned home.

About a month before kicking off her first year as a teacher she stepped into the recording booth.

When others heard how Panton’s evenings were spent mastering an album, after a full day of classes, they scoffed and told her she’d never manage to finish it. It took about a year, but she never lost her motivation.

“It was a realization that music was an indispensable part of my life,” she says.

“I was sleeping five hours a night getting stuff ready for class the next day — that was like all year.”

Panton keeps her schedule more restrained these days, but not by much. She speaks about her music career with the sort of analysis usually reserved for a musician’s manager. She does that job too, by the way, and books her own tours.

When she’s teaching, Panton lugs around a bulky day planner with pages covered in handwritten notes outlining her entire day. The class hours blend into specifics for evening concerts. Once a page fills up, she starts piling on Post-It notes to ensure she doesn’t miss a beat.

Yet Panton still manages to keep life simple. She rides a bus to work, doesn’t own a cellphone and hardly ever watches television.

“I’m old school,” she says. “I do music from the 1920s and 1930s.”

Her Juno-nominated album “I Believe in Little Things” is a collection of kids’ songs played with a traditional jazz mindset. Panton came up with the idea after a number of parents said they were playing her past jazz albums to relax their kids at bedtime.

If the kids liked “Moon River,” she thought, they’d probably enjoy her singing classics for their age group that weren’t “dumbed down.”

“The sophistication of the arrangements and the harmonies is essentially exactly the same as any album we did (before),” she says.

Panton figures a major label would’ve balked at a jazz artist making children’s music. That’s one reason she prefers to double up on jobs. Without being tied down by other people’s ideas, she’s able to make the albums she wants.

“I’ve always enjoyed having a little artistic freedom,” she says.

While Panton has no intention of leaving either job behind right now, some students have tried to find out more about her night life.

Faris Nolan, who takes Panton’s Grade 9 art class, heard about his teacher’s music career but only recently Googled her name.

“It was really shocking,” he says.

“When you’re in a close proximity to someone who is more or less famous, it’s a really weird feeling.”

His classmate Beth Cushnie saw Panton in the local newspaper once. She didn’t give it much thought until one night when she put aside her homework to do a little sleuthing.

“I found out she has a Wikipedia page, which is pretty cool,” she says. “Because I don’t have a Wikipedia page.”

Cushnie says she’ll be rooting for her teacher on her big night.

“Somebody I know could be winning an award,” she says. “And that’s really cool.”

 

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David Friend, The Canadian Press