Michael Panza is a living and breathing example of the well-known phrase, "pay it forward."
Many people are aware of Panza's successes with his award-winning event- and wedding-planning business, Fine Affairs, as well as his dedication to Panza's, his family's restaurant on Saratoga Lake. However, not everyone knows about his single greatest passion, singing, which he pushed to the back burner. This past year, Panza brought his singing to the forefront, and Saratoga is experiencing a performer who truly understands how to connect to his audience.
Panza doesn't come from a musical family, and as a kid he admits he "shriveled up in music class." He was shy, had no voice training and ended up taking piano lessons as an adult. After two lessons, he told his teacher, Jeff Halstead of Saratoga Springs, "You know what I always wanted to do...I always wanted to sing." His parents recognized their son had desires and talents outside of the demanding restaurant business, so they encouraged him to pursue these dreams. Of course he'd been around music his entire life, listening to the bands at Panza's and learning all the standards. His professional connections in Saratoga, influential clients like Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson, and Barry and Sheryl Schwartz were instrumental in introducing him to the social scene.
Panza is most passionate about "songs that tell a great story," and he can rattle off quite an eclectic list: tunes from The Great American Song Book, show tunes, Barry Manilow, Lionel Richie, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé, Tony Bennett, The Commodores, Stevie Wonder and Barbra Streisand.
Memories are what people respond to most, he says. "It has to do with memories, and people react to music that makes them feel good," he says. Panza is fond of stirring up emotions by singing torch songs that make people cry. "They could be crying for other reasons," he laughs, insinuating that his voice may be a source of pain. But when Panza sings alongside the Charles Cornell Trio on this night, to a full bar and restaurant, it's obvious that his voice is a finely tuned instrument that blends effortlessly with the jazz keyboard, bass and drums.
"I haven't sung this much in 10 years. They have been my rebirth in wanting to get out and sing," Panza says, gesturing to the talented young men: Charles Cornell, pianist and musical director, and Matt Niedbalski, drummer.
Panza and this trio have an easy rapport on and off the stage, and he feels like he's a big brother or an uncle to Charles, Matt and regular bass guitarist and sax player Steven Kirsty, all in their early 20s. Panza remembers when he first began singing 27 years ago, when he knew he had gotten a late start. His voice instructor, Patty Wilcox, told him it could take 10 or 15 years for his vocal chords to develop. He would head out to different clubs in Saratoga, and have performers like Al Bruno encouraging him to get up to sing. "So it's very important to me to help new talent. They are going somewhere. Jazz is their thing," he says about this virtuoso trio.
Panza nearly forgets to tell two incredible stories. "A big moment," Panza admits. "Julio Iglesias did the opening night gala at Proctors several years back, and my band was playing at the post party. Concert's over, I'm up there singing, and the people are clapping, and I'm like, wow ... they really like me. My bass player taps me on the shoulder, and I turn around and Julio's on the stage with a mic in his hand, and he sang 'Summer Wind' with me. He pinched my cheeks and told me he loved the way I sang." Panza also mentions in passing that he played backup for The Pointer Sisters, as well as in front of an enormous crowd at Universal Studios, but these are not the stories he dwells on. His attention moves back to the trio.
"This is my passion, and it's been a blast. They've changed things for me." S
Jennifer Grace is a contributing editor and writer.