Danilo Pérez: Father of the Panama Jazz Festival


Danilo Pérez discusses the upcoming Panama Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

The Panama Jazz Festival, brainchild of irrepressible Panamanian pianist and educator Danilo Pérez and his wife, Patricia, celebrates its 19th edition Jan. 10–19. Approximately 150 events are scheduled to occur during the week, many with an ambitious educational component. Some large events have been scaled back — an outdoor performance that usually attracts about 25,000 people has been restricted to 10,000 via a registration process that requires proof of vaccination and observance of appropriate precautions. Acts unable to appear in person will be represented with pre-recorded videos made especially for the occasion, hence a hybrid format. Many participants connect with U.S. institutions such as Berklee College of Music, New England Conservatory and the New York Jazz Academy, but originate from all over the globe.

DownBeat caught up with Pérez via phone from his residence in Massachusetts before his flight down to Panama to prepare for the festival. A passionate and long-form spokesman and ambassador for his country, Pérez’s comments have been edited for brevity.

The PJF, which you founded in 2003, is your baby. The baby is now a teenager. How has she navigated the challenges of life?
Wow, that’s a super loaded question! We have witnessed the growth of this amazing event that started with no commercial sponsor in 2003 and only a small group of family and friends to help me with this. One of the things we’ve seen is that we’ve been able to tell the beautiful jazz story of Panama. Every year we’ve celebrated the contributions of jazz Panamanians and, believe it or not, going into our 20th year next year, we’ve not run out of important Panamanians in the world of jazz. We started with bandleader Luis Russell and continued with Sonny White, who played piano on the recording of “Strange Fruit.”

And Randy Weston has ties to Panama, yes?
When Randy Weston came to Panama he discovered the papers of his father and found he was Panamanian. Eric Dolphy was from Panama; Billy Cobham, too. This has been a wonderful part of enhancing the collective memory of our country. More specifically, one of the things that’s very important has been providing a musical education for people from all around the country from different social classes, not only in Panama but in Latin America at large. We’ve also established Panama as a new center for auditions. People can audition here for Berklee, NEC and other universities. Normally [in a non-pandemic year], there are around 5,000 students who participate in the educational events. They come from Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, the Dominican Republic.

In the 17th year, we started to notice an important avenue for cultural tourism opening for the festival — people visiting from Europe, the U.S. and Canada. We have announced more than $4 million in student scholarships. Through the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, which I founded and direct, we’ve even been able to establish a course in Panama that’s equivalent to a college credit.

There’s a story behind the development of the festival site, isn’t there?
The festival started in the old part of Panama, and we moved it to a place called “The City of Knowledge.” What is so powerful about that move is that that location used to be a U.S. military base for 100 years or more and we could never go there. It was like another country. Now we have the festival in that area, which speaks to the power of music as a diplomatic tool and also how it is possible to turn something destructive into a constructive experience.

And presumably there is an economic impact brought about by the event?
In terms of the creative and economic impact, the small businesses, hotels, restaurants, street vendors, it’s been fantastic. The pandemic, as with many festivals around the world, presented challenges. But the heartbeat of our festival is about education and social activism, to the point — and this is how beautiful it is — that the equivalent of Congress in Panama has recognized the festival in a law of the country.

So, it is a mandate that it takes place every year and therefore will continue beyond your tenure?
Yes, which brings something really deep to the project: sustainability. I gotta tell you, that’s my dream. A social and educational platform of exchange where people from different parts of the world, different generations, with diverse social backgrounds, gather to share ideas on interdisciplinary projects of high educational value. A creative platform for future generations. We have struggled during the pandemic to keep this going, but we have an incredible team led by my wife, who’s the executive director of the festival, and an immense group of talented volunteers. … The power of the festival is that we invested a lot in our volunteers, who come from — oh, man, you have to see it — we have 500 young people, from different parts of the world, not just Panama. We come together for a week creating this incredible place of beauty and hope that we then bring to other parts of our life.

Your wife, Patricia, is a musician also?
Yes, she is a great saxophonist from Chile and a music therapist. In our festival, we’ve been trying to create the idea of human rights and equity for everybody. She’s put a band together of really talented young women from the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, where she’s on the faculty. You have a pianist from Cuba, a drummer from Italy, a bass player from Austria. That night you are going to see all the countries coming together in a concert. We’re exposing the importance of global conversations in order to find the meaning of hope around the world.

And your teenage daughters and your son are involved?
My daughter Carolina is a singer, and Daniela is not performing but putting the schedule together. And one killing bass player you’ll get the chance to meet — his name is Danilo Andrez [age 11]. My kids have been part of the Berklee city music program and have had private lessons, too. They are seriously into the music, and other things. We we take a different approach and home-school our children.

Was home-schooling a pandemic-related decision?
No, from the beginning, my wife has been a warrior. It has been great because the family has been together during the pandemic, and we did a lot of catching up.

No jazz musician has won a Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for promoting fraternity between nations. As an UNESCO Artist for Peace, perhaps you are the closest thing. How significant were individuals like your father, who started the Danilo Pérez Foundation in the ’60s and was very involved in music education, and your old boss in the United Nations Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie, in inspiring your global outreach with the Panama Jazz Festival?
My father wrote a thesis in 1967, “The Influence of Music in Primary Education,” about how every teacher should know about music, and recommending that it be used as a pedagogical tool to teach all subjects. So as a kid my dad was already teaching me mathematics, science and poetry and connecting with music. But my mother was the social activist, more involved in politics. I learned from her about the power of equity and gender equality.

Dizzy helped me understand the power of music as a tool for intercultural dialogue. I was with him in a group that included people from all over the world, Latin America, collaborations in Europe, with Miriam Makeba in Africa. Dizzy taught me about jazz diplomacy and how music can unite and essentially humanize us.

As a protean pianist, it’s no surprise you recognize expansive talent in others, and you’ll be showcasing some of your protégés in the Global Messengers sextet on Jan. 13, which features young musicians from Greece, Palestine, Jordan, the U.S. and Panama. Also veteran Panamanian pianist Frank Anderson will be honored. Can you tell us more about Anderson’s contribution over the years?
Frank is 92 and has enjoyed a prolific career … lots of people focus on the colonization issue, but there is something that happened with Panama because of the geographical position that is unique in terms of cultural exchange with the innovations of the Panama railroad and canal. Frank Anderson is one of several figures that proved that the jazz scene in Panama was vital and developing at the same time as in the U.S. The first orchestra in which Louis Armstrong found fame was led by Panamanian Luis Russell in the ’20s and ’30s. My wife, Patricia, is writing a book about this history, with the working title, The Panama Suite. Russell and Anderson came up in the same music scene in Bocas del Toro. Anderson digested Charlie Parker from the radio and moved to the Big Apple early on, becoming one of the most active organists in jazz, playing with Arsenio Rodriguez, Cachao, Kenny Burrell, Woody Shaw, Clark Terry. In the ’50s, he started his own big band with members from the Ellington and Basie orchestras. He was recognized in 2009 by the U.S. Senate for his musical contributions.

Much about Panama is not widely known. To quote the title of your Grammy-winning collaboration with Kurt Elling, who headlines this year’s festival with you, is it a case of “Secrets are the Best Stories”?
Ha, you just hit me straight to the heart! That’s the feeling about how we are trying to tell our history in so many different forms. … My vibe is I think music offers opportunity to speak about hope, but I think hope has another meaning now, like we have to act; if you are an artist, it’s a call of duty, basically. … Kurt and I are on the same plane with the same interests, taking note of things that should be noticed and discussed.

You and Elling connected in Chicago at the Jazz Showcase, long before you performed together.
Yes, he and [pianist/arranger] Laurence Hobgood would come to the Sunday matinees when I played there and we’d talk about philosophy, about the id and what it is. What is it that we are doing, and what is it that music does for people? Is it true, is it our impression or is it real? And if music can change people, how does it change them? We’d discuss the state of being and society, the state of politics, racism, immigration — and mystery, that was an important word for me, to go from that place of not knowing, because as humans that’s where we start from originally.

Can we expect some impromptu ideas to emerge during your performance?
We will probably perform some material from the record and a couple of new things, but I have a surprise in store — don’t tell him! This is the first gig we are going to do since the release of the record because COVID caused the cancellation of a three-month tour. We’ll perform on Gala Night in our beautiful National Theater.

You also have two nationally known Panamanian singers from different generations appearing, Solinka and Idania Dowman.
Solinka is a national treasure. She is Panama’s answer to Cuba’s Omara Portuondo or Celia Cruz. She was a big inspiration when I was in my early years. I played percussion and keyboards in an orchestra between ages 12 and 16, and had the pleasure and privilege to accompany her. At age 92, this will be her “welcome back” concert, the first after her retirement. Idania is part of a younger generation of talented singers gravitating between salsa, bolero, calypso and son. That’s part of our design in Panama: We cover the whole Caribbean influence. Idania is very connected to the West Indian history of Panama, the people who came to work on the canal.

Education is a huge part of who you are and a significant facet of the festival. Your own discography has delved into different aspects of your home nation, part of an interoceanic, intercontinental umbilical cord. What do you want the world to know about Panama and its people?
I want them to know about Panama’s rich Afro-Hispanic and Afro-Antillean history, and about the culture of the country’s indigenous tribes. Also, Panama’s biodiversity has made it a center for Smithsonian tropical biology studies. And, of course, I want them to learn about Panama’s rich jazz tradition, which is a hidden treasure. DB

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