Since he launched the Panza Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to support local indie rock acts, a couple of years ago, John Panza has become one of the most outspoken proponents of the local music scene. He is, of course, many other things, including a cancer patient, an active member of a number of local acts, and a full-time English professor at Cuyahoga Community College. It's not surprising, then, that he can speak eloquently on any number of topics, including the city's discriminating noise rock scene, local rock venues and local promoters who do and don't treat the artists' best interests as a priority.
Panza started playing drums when he was 7. It was sort of a family calling; his dad had played drums, and his mother's father was [a] bluegrass musician. "I knew music was something I would enjoy, and when I got to around 11 years old, I was taking jazz drumming with a private teacher," he says one afternoon from the screened-in porch of his Cleveland Heights home. "My jazz teacher was trying to move me to marimba, but I discovered Dead Kennedys at the same time. There wasn't much of a choice between the two."
Panza drummed in his mom's basement, playing along to tapes and teaching himself tempo changes and speed. When he was in grad school studying literary theory at John Carroll University, he formed his first band, Simoom, with one of his students and a fellow grad student who happened to be his office mate.
His life took a sharp turn for the worse in January of 2012. After a show at the Happy Dog, with his indie rock act Blaka Watra, Panza felt sick and threw up. He woke up the next morning with a flu, went to the doctor and got a chest X-ray. They found fluid surrounding his lung and drained the fluids. The fluid kept coming back. "They opened me up, and the surgeon saw cancer," he says. "The [CT] scans never showed it." After three rounds of chemo, major surgery that involved the removal of his right lung, half his diaphragm and a rib, and then radiation, he finally healed. Exposure to asbestos had caused the incurable cancer. After a little research, he realized his father had brought home asbestos on his clothes. Panza sued the company that was the culprit. In the wake of the trial he formed the Panza Foundation, turning the settlement money into a force of local good.
"Being a musician and playing for over 20 years, if there's one overriding characteristic of musicians, they're bad at asking for help," he says when asked about the foundation's goals. "Sometimes it's lack of knowledge and sometimes it's pride. Unlike painters and orchestra people who have grants and scholarships, indie rock musicians that make challenging music don't have that. The one characteristic we wanted above all else was no application process, because bands won't ask for help. The foundation's concept is that we provide them with what they need to succeed. We pick bands that play original music and play regularly and play nice with others. What they do with the money we give them is their choice."
Panza admits there has been a connection between his work as a teacher at Tri-C and his ardent support for the local music scene of which he's a part.
"When I taught humanities regularly at Tri-C, I felt as if my musical background and experience gave me a more nuanced understanding of what other artists were doing in other areas, and I translated that in the classroom as best I could," he says. "I'm older than a lot of musicians in Cleveland. I'm 43, but I still learn new things every day from these bands we sponsor. They constantly remind me that teaching is a two-way street." — Jeff Niesel