Blaise Lantana had no plans to write a song about her recent heart attack.
“I don’t think it’s something I can really sing about,” the local music legend said with a laugh. “I mean, what would I say?”
She was phoning from Utah. “I came here last month to cool off, but it’s not cool,” she said. “It’s not 115 degrees, but it’s over 100. I have to walk every day for my heart, and in Phoenix I had to get up at 6 in the morning to do that. Here I can sleep until 8. There are trees, and a little bit of shade.”
Lantana is hosting her KJZZ show remotely while she’s away. “And walking,” she amended. “And thinking about how I almost didn’t make it.”
She was drinking a cup of coffee one night before leaving for KJZZ, where she works as music director and hosts a nightly program of jazz music. “And all of a sudden my jaw hurt, my forearms hurt, there was a pain in my chest. If you Google ‘heart attack,’ I had all those symptoms.”
The pain was intense, and Lantana felt faint. “I laid down on the couch and I thought, ‘If I’m dying, this isn’t the worst way to go.’ But I didn’t die, and it kind of passed.”
Lantana phoned her friend Carrie and asked for a lift to work. “She said, ‘I’m not taking you to work, I’m taking you to the ER,’” Lantana said. “And I said, ‘I can’t go to the ER, it’s pledge drive week!’”
When the ER doctor wanted to admit Lantana to the hospital, she told him no thanks, she’d rather go home and rest.
“Carrie called my sister,” Lantana said, “and my sister said, ‘Do you remember that guy who lived down the street from us when we were kids? The one who died? He had chest pains, he ignored them, and he had a heart attack and it killed him.’ I hadn’t thought about that guy in years. So I went to the hospital.”
The entire ordeal was humbling, Lantana admitted. “I was lying there in the ER, no makeup, wearing a COVID mask and I have my glasses on and my hair is everywhere. And the EMT guy comes in to put me in the ambulance and he goes, ‘Blaise Lantana! Oh my god!’ He’d seen me on stage and now here I am, looking like death.”
At the hospital, a surgeon implanted a stint to facilitate blood flow from a blocked artery in Lantana’s heart.
“I was in for three awful days,” she said. “The nurses were wonderful, but they don’t let you sleep. They wake you up to take your blood pressure or give you magnesium. I was saying, ‘Are you really waking me up for magnesium?’”
Lantana was born in Tucson but grew up in Philadelphia, where she attended Catholic school. She began studying music at age 7. “It’s really cold in Philly,” she explained. “And I found out that if you studied piano during recess, you got to stay inside the convent, where it was warm.”
She played organ in church and took up guitar in high school to be near the boys who were also learning to play. Lantana attended Douglas College at Rutgers, then dropped out to hitchhike around the country and play music. She landed in Tucson and formed a band called Gypsy Wind with her brother and a cousin. A few years later, she moved to Texas where she played live music, got married, and took a job at a jazz radio station in the late '80s.
“I told the station manager how I had studied opera and different languages, so I knew how to pronounce difficult names,” she said. “I told him I knew jazz because I was a jazz musician, and I thought he’d never hire me because I’d never done radio.”
Instead, the fellow asked if she could start that night. She stayed on with the NPR member station, eventually taking shifts on All Things Considered and Morning Edition before relocating to Phoenix, first as an announcer at NPR affiliate KBAQ before moving on to sister station KJZZ as its music director in 1995. She put together a band and began playing local clubs and recording albums not long after.
“And then, 25 years later, I had a heart attack,” she said. “You’d think there’d be clues, but it just happened.”
She’s focused on recovering and on making amends with her heart. “I looked at my first electrocardiogram and I saw my little heart beating away, trying to move blood through that blocked artery, and I just wanted to tell it, ‘I’m so sorry you had to deal with that.’”
A more recent EKG showed her heart recovering, and a recent adjustment to her medications has helped. Those daily walks haven’t hurt either, she confessed. While she walks, she thinks about her heart attack.
“The doctor reminded me that a heart attack is a traumatic thing for your whole body,” she said. “But I got to thinking about how I hadn’t been out playing live because of COVID. And my theory is that because I haven’t been singing, my heart was just broken.”