Danilo Pérez Builds a Magnet for Musicians in Panama
CreditTito Herrera for The New York Times
PANAMA — In the wee hours of Friday morning, Danilo Pérez climbed onstage at his jazz club here to play a set. Mr. Pérez, the Panama-born pianist and composer who has for more than a decade been a member of Wayne Shorter’s acclaimed quartet, had already headlined shows for the Panama Jazz Festival, which he founded 12 years ago. There he had performed alongside the Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenón and his fellow Panamanian, the salsa singer Rubén Blades, and in the festival’s gala concert at the 106-year-old National Theater.
And here he was, at 1:30 a.m. Friday, sitting behind the grand piano in the intimate Danilo’s Jazz Club, the city’s only performance space dedicated exclusively to jazz, now packed with friends and visitors. He was joined by John Patitucci, the Shorter quartet bassist, and a host of international musicians and students, eager to improvise alongside the masters. Nêgah Santos, 24, a Brazilian powerhouse in denim shorts, gave her congas a workout; Samuel Batista, 24, a Panamanian in his third year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, drew full-throated cheers with his saxophone. The jam lasted until closing time, and afterward Mr. Pérez gathered his young charges at a cocktail table to dispense encouragement and wisdom. “This kind of thing wakes you up, right?” he said, grinning.
Even in jazz, which has a long tradition of mentorship, Mr. Pérez, 49, has emerged as a singular figure. Nearly 30 years after he left his native Panama to study jazz composition at Berklee, he has made promoting musicianship in Panama — using music as a springboard, cultural unifier and teaching tool — his life’s work. In 2005, a year after he started the jazz festival with his family, he created the Danilo Pérez Foundation, a nonprofit center for music education and outreach; the festival, which draws as many as 30,000 people over its six-day run each January, provides money for the foundation. The club, which opened last February at the new American Trade Hotel, a luxe outpost of the Ace Hotel chain, is, in his view, the last piece of the puzzle.
“Having a club really helps to focus the work,” Mr. Pérez said, “to provide a space to connect with all these people who are eager to hear more music.” For musicians, a year-round place to perform is “a double blessing,” he added. He had Mr. Shorter’s sound engineer develop the acoustics with the aim of recording there, à la the Village Vanguard. “We hope that with the club, Panama becomes the capital of jazz in Latin America,” Mr. Pérez said.
Already, he has changed the lives of students, especially those from poor backgrounds, like Mr. Batista, handing them a horn and heaping on support, helping some study at Berklee or the New England Conservatory of Music, which hold auditions here during the festival week. (Mr. Pérez leads the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, splitting his time between Boston and Panama.) The conservatories send their own students, too, making for a musical cross-pollination with rising Latin artists. The festival has also been a model for other programming in Panama and South America, where jazz festivals are not as numerous as they are in Europe and the United States. A Chilean delegation visited to study this year’s edition.
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“He has proven that you can be successful at it,” said Mariana Núñez Haugland, the director general of Panama’s National Institute of Culture, which sends students to the daily classes that are part of the festival. Mr. Pérez’s efforts, she added, have convinced sponsors and governments that music helps young people “be better citizens.”
Jason Olaine, director of programming and touring at Jazz at Lincoln Center, who has often booked Mr. Pérez as a performer, said his infectious energy may be well suited to link institutions with the musical street culture of Latin America. “He’s just an incredible talent and visionary,” Mr. Olaine said.
For Mr. Pérez, the connection between music and community was taught early, by his father, Danilo Sr., a bandleader and educator, he said during a tour of the foundation on Friday. It is in the former music conservatory where the young Mr. Pérez took his first piano lessons; by 12 he was a working musician. “My happiest days, I passed them here,” he said.
Run on a tight budget, the foundation took donations of instruments from colleagues like Mr. Patitucci and the Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés. Similarly, the festival is staffed by hundreds of volunteers, said Patricia Zarate, its executive director, a saxophonist and Mr. Pérez’s wife. A festival of this scope would likely cost $1 million to $3 million to produce, she said, “and we do it with less than $500,000.” The musicians are paid on a sliding scale, and backing comes from the Panamian government and sponsors like Copa Airlines.
For Mr. Batista, who picked up the saxophone as a teenager, studying at the foundation “changed everything,” he said. He earned a full scholarshipto Berklee, one of only two international slots for that program annually. He double-majors in music performance and music therapy, teaches at the foundation in summer and runs auditions at the festival. “The way that they open the doors makes you feel that you need to do the same,” he said.
Though he’s comfortable with Mr. Pérez — known to many here simply as Maestro — improvising onstage with him at the club “was terrifying,” Mr. Batista said afterward. “I’m still in shock.”
It was the good kind of shock, he added. Watching him invent harmonies with Mr. Patitucci, “you realize the work never ends,” Mr. Batista said.
Chale Icaza, 37, a local professional drummer who was mentored by Mr. Pérez, sees the club as a new artistic challenge, and a responsibility. “You can’t just go into that place and play all right,” Mr. Icaza said.
The idea for the club first came up about five years ago, Mr. Pérez said, in conversations with K. C. Hardin, the developer who owns the foundation’s building. When Mr. Hardin, an American transplant here, connected with Ace Hotel, the Portland, Ore., chain known for injecting a dose of studied cool into unlikely places, the notion finally came to fruition. At American Trade, a grand 50-room hotel in what was once a derelict gang stronghold in Casco Viejo, the historic colonial district here, Danilo’s Jazz Club sits next to the hotel lobby. Mr. Pérez’s foundation is just across the street.
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Ace’s management took the collaboration seriously, even hiring a researcher to delve into Panama’s roots in Afro-Cuban jazz. It was also Ace’s idea to invite WWOZ, a New Orleans jazz radio station, to live-stream the festival, which Mr. Pérez welcomed as a way to broaden the music’s following.
To worries that the hotel — among the city’s most expensive — has contributed to gentrification in Casco Viejo, Mr. Pérez said he hoped a well-heeled audience could help support the club. With an eye toward accessibility, tickets to some shows are $5.
The festival’s populist mission was clear at the daily clinics, which host about 2,000 students of all ages. On Friday, the virtuoso Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martínez held court in a sweaty classroom, below a diagram of Bach’s chorales, pounding out polyrhythms and inspiring a singalong. Then he answered questions about religion, folklore and history for a rapt audience, many of them grade-schoolers.
The closing concert on Saturday, free to the public, also drew thousands, even on a rainy day. People picnicked and danced to salsa, samba, son and jazz. Alongside his students, Mr. Pérez played piano and keyboards in an all-star jam at the end, upstaged only slightly by three kids whose horns were half their body size. When the stage show ended, another percussion jam started up on the wet grass, and people lingered into the night, not wanting the music to end.
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