Panama Jazz Festival Consolidates Pan-Global M.O. for 20th Anniversary

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Hijas del Jazz Orchestra performed at this year’s Panama Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

The Panama Jazz Festival has developed into one of the most important events of its kind in the world. While other festivals have more high-profile headliners and bigger budgets, PJF’s appeal stems from the fostering of cross-generational, pan-cultural engagement and an essential educational component woven into the event that promotes intellectual and spiritual growth, largely beyond the vagaries of commercialism.

The concept has its roots in the forbears of Danilo Pérez, artistic director, whose father, an enlightened educator, was hip to the larger benefits of music as a connecting force across formative academic disciplines and in society as a whole.

“The first festival office was in my parents’ apartment more than 20 years ago,’” Pérez recalls with some amusement. “Now we have a $250,000 budget that was signed into law in 2013 as an ongoing entity, so we can pass opportunity to future generations. Yet, as the festival has continued to expand — 30,000 people attended the final concerts in the City of Knowledge this year — we need more funds in order to keep things free for the people.”

Regular attendees at the PJF include students and faculty from the homegrown Danilo Pérez Foundation, New England Conservatory and Berklee College of Music in Boston, as well as Javier Arau’s New York Jazz Academy, which promotes jazz instruction to all ages, including mature students from all walks of life.

Pérez founded and developed the Global Jazz Institute at Berklee with the support of his wife, Patricia Zárate (the festival executive director) and his right hand man, Italian saxophonist Marco Pignataro, managing director of the institute. It has become an outpost of learning attracting scholarship students from across the globe with a community-first agenda. Some of these students were featured on Pérez’s 2023 Grammy-nominated album Crisálida and were in salient attendance in Panama, including vocalist Farayi Malek, who backed up an impressive quartet set supporting legendary Panamanian bandleader Luis Russell’s collective at the vintage theater Ateneo.

A VIP guest who opened for Chucho Valdés at the downtown Atlapa venue was Russell’s daughter Catherine, a fine, bluesy vocalist with a storied career herself. “I got to teach a master class for singers,” she reflected after the event. “People were very enthusiastic and ready to soak up any knowledge and advice I had to share, (just like) the last time I taught at the festival 15 years ago. Being in Panama felt like home, especially since we travelled to Bocas del Toro and Carenero (Careening Key), where my father was actually from. I looked out at the same water he saw as a boy. It was exciting and soothing, as we further delved into the history of that archipelago.”

The New York-born Russell’s quintet performed a number of tunes associated with her father, including several of his collaborations with Louis Armstrong, notably “Back O’Town Blues,” “At The Swing Cats Ball” and “Lucille,” which Russell capped with an impressive final note.

Nearly all guest stars at the festival did double-duty as clinicians, and many recent alumni of the Global Jazz Institute were thrust into the spotlight as young masters. Pianist Chase Morrin, now an assistant professor at Berklee in his mid-twenties, lectured, interactively, to a capacity all-ages crowd at the City of Knowledge campus and was repeatedly tackled by a precocious pre-teen in the audience about the tetrachordial concepts that Morrin gleaned from his teacher, Danilo Pérez.

“I loved meeting that kid,” Morrin enthused after the experience. “He attended another workshop we did and it was clear he was listening deeply and invested. It was hard to introduce the concepts in just a two-hour workshop, but I hope everyone got a taste for the possibilities tetrachords can offer.”

There’s a fluid attitude to collaboration brought about by the exchange of information between students and established professionals/nascent educators at PJF, further fueled by high-energy late-night jams at the atmospheric open-air bar Villa Agustina in the heart of historical San Felipe. More formal concerts included a rare summit for Children of the Light, consisting of the late Wayne Shorter’s rhythm section of Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, that presumably riffs on Shorter’s yearning composition “Children Of The Night.” Their set bespoke another key aspect of the PJF: feminism. Pérez repeatedly uttered the rallying cry “más mujeres, major país!” (more women, better country) from various stages and is currently preoccupied with music honoring “the most amazing women mentors I had. My mother, my aunt and sister, my Chilean first piano teacher, my New York piano teacher and my beloved wife and daughters,” he told DownBeat.

At the concert, after a duo set with Panamanian Erika Ender, a Miami-based singer/songwriter whose 2017 hit “Despacito” reached 6 billion views (“More than Thriller!” Pérez informed this writer), the pianist explored open-ended works with his trio cohorts dedicated to Toni Morrison, Angela Davis and Patitucci’s wife, Sachi. The bassist choked up at a news conference when asked about his longtime support of PJF, notwithstanding the fact that the last time he’d played together with Shorter, it was at the same venue in 2018. “The 20th-year celebration of the PJF was very emotional as we looked back on all the hard work that Danilo, Patricia and so many others have put in and saw how far the festival and the foundation have come. To see the fruits of the tireless perseverance of Danilo’s vision to be an incredible force for change and transformation in the lives of children in Panama was so beautiful,” Patitucci told DownBeat. “This 20 years of hard work has been a long season of overcoming many obstacles, showing the incredible cultural beauty of Panama to the world and bringing the world to Panama to engage and exchange. This is indeed a mission, and I thank God that my brother Danilo invited me to walk with him and his wife, Patricia, and family on this wonderful journey.”

Zárate and band manager Aleida Duarte, with training help from professor Luis Carlos Pérez, pulled off perhaps the most impressive coup of the festival week, corralling a conglomerate of two dozen women for her Hijas del Jazz Orchestra, which performed at both the Atheneo Theatre and the massive closing event. Ages of performers in the band ranged from 13 to octagenerian, those with basic skills mixing with artists with more than 40 years of experience. Guest conductor Chilean pianist Luciana Garcia, her comrades in the Global Jazz Women group Lihi Haruvi, Jas Kayser and bassist Ciara Moser worked alongside Cuban pianist Zahili Zamora, Canadian violinist Amelie Langlois, Panamanian percussionist Milagros Blades and Swiss saxophonist Charlotte Lang in premiering specially composed pieces and such potboilers as “A Night In Tunisia.” “The concert was special because the godmothers of the band, Solinka and Idania Dowman, performed with younger artists and encouraged a multigenerational safe space for women to be creative and dare to express themselves through music,” Zárate said.

A multi-talent with steely resolve yet warm humanity, Zárate said she regarded the 20th edition of PJF as a triumph. “Serving so many people can only be done through a strong marriage between government, corporate and nonprofit sections, diplomatic collaborations, national and international press and the amazing public,” she explained. “We survived the pandemic. We announced five international scholarships for summer programs at Berklee and NEC, some of the world’s best music schools. We are changing the lives of another five young musicians and opening up the world to them and their families. This is not counting the scholarships given to students during the year for their undergraduate and graduate studies, many of whom travel on their own (to Panama) and take advantage of the possibility the festival gives them as a door to their international studies.”

With some pan-Caribbean pride, Zárate continued: “We consolidated as one of the region’s most significant events and sold out the biggest festival stage in the Central Square of the City of Knowledge, a space where U.S. soldiers once lined to control the U.S. military zone of the Panama Canal. Now (it’s) a place of Panamanian convergence, enjoyment, freedom and sovereignty. Today we can say the Panama Jazz Festival healed the land.” DB



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