Written on July 1, 2011 – 12:17 am | by Jaxon Hallahan
Alex Pangman sings vintage jazz with her own voice — but with someone else’s lungs.
Her story is one of perseverance, life riding on a coin flip, but above all, on beautiful, undying Depression-era music. The young Toronto musician was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a baby, yet has lived her life to its fullest — riding horses competitively, stoking her singing career and having her first album produced by the legendary Jeff Healey in 1999. But her body insisted on its own destructive agenda.
“By my 30s, I basically whittled away to about 25 per cent,” she says over the phone from Victoria.
The walls were closing in. At that point, Pangman and her songbird voice had won Songwriter of the Year honours at the National Jazz Awards and a Genie for a performance in the period film, Falling Angels. Her hard work touring and recording in the style of classic American singers had earned her the name Canada’s Sweetheart of Swing. She’d even joined a swinging country band.
But she kept her illness a secret. “I didn’t think it was very romantic to have a jazz singer who was spitting up blood in the corner,” says the redhead. “I’d been pretty handicapped for my last few years, using an oxygen tank. My world had become really small, and while I could still sort of sing, it was becoming increasingly clear that I was racing towards the finish. I didn’t want anyone to know.”
A double lung transplant is an extremely hard choice for anyone to consider, never mind a singer just a few years into her career.
“The subject was brought up very slowly over several months; you have to get used to the idea. Denial and anger. The doctor said, ‘You have a 50 per cent chance of being alive in two years.’ I thought, I don’t know how long I’m going to be on the list. And the odds of survival are not very good. But quite frankly, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I was sick of being scared of every breath and fighting all the time. My life had been winnowed away to a shadow.”
The surgery took place in 2008 in Toronto. Someone Pangman will never know saved her through organ donation of a set of lungs. As she puts it, “you gave me everything.”
Asked if she made promises to herself if she survived, she submits: “My deal was, I was always really private about my health, but if I got through this, I would be public about my help, so that I could inspire some change and raise awareness. It’s really important you speak to your family, because they’re the ones that sign on the dotted line (to donate an organ).
“My ability to breathe and make music was taken from me over many, many years, slowly. That in the space of an eight-hour surgery, all of a sudden I could sing again and I could complete my MO — which was to get out there and live life and make music and have a band and enjoy — it’s crazy. It’s the big things, but it’s also the small things, being able to run up the stairs, it’s just a miracle.”
Her cadence even expanded. She can sing deeper now.
Another way Pangman is giving back is with her music. Her latest album, 33, is sparkling and timeless, its songs picked from those popular in 1933. “As much as I like the music from the 1930s,” she laughs, “I’m really glad I wasn’t born then.” Indeed, she wouldn’t have survived.
Pangman worked on the album last year when she was 33, meaning she can continue this age-and-year pattern indefinitely — an album of Second World War songs when she’s 42, a psychedelic tribute when she turns 67 and, in her 80s, she jokes, “Yeah, Cyndi Lauper! I’ll be glad to be that old!”
Next up, Pangman will release a collection of songs she did with American guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. “He’s just a gem. I don’t know if I want to release it as an EP or get him back in the studio. He actually just recorded a record with Paul McCartney, so the stakes may have been raised.”
In the end, like her music, the singer is straightforward about it all.
“It’s not a cure, but it’s a treatment. It’s a last option, but, like you say, without it, I wouldn’t be here. People with chronic illness have to be positive and have to be fighters. I went to university for art and art history, and I didn’t really want to do that. Something within got me to go out and do what I wanted to do, to sing. I had always wanted to do the jazz-festival circuit, but my illness was pretty chronic and I just couldn’t do it. Now, I’ve not only been able to live my life again, but I can make art again.
“We were standing onstage last night in Victoria, and we had a standing ovation and I was like, ‘Pinch me!’ Who knows when the meteor’s going to drop or you’ll get hit by a bus! Get out there and do what you like doing.”
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