DANILO PEREZ has just finished a clinic for young jazz players, and it’s time for his next gig. He slips out of the auditorium, crosses a narrow street, and ducks into a rehearsal room crawling with trumpeters, guitarists, singers, and more than a half-dozen percussionists. Like nearly everyone else at January’s weeklong Panama Jazz Festival, in his native Panama City, the musicians are waiting for him, a blur in a navy button-down, black pants, and thick-frame glasses. Everybody wants a piece of Danilo.
Haggard from a punishing schedule, the renowned composer, pianist, and educator is growing sicker by the day. Tomorrow, the big band he leads will close the festival before a sea of fans on a former American military base near the Panama Canal. Then he will check into a hospital, barely able to breathe. But today they must practice.
The band begins rehearsing a Perez composition, Patria, or Homeland, written as a tribute to his country. The horns and drums build, but he waves them off. “The feeling is not there,” he says. He needs the ensemble to evoke, with its tones and rhythms, Spain’s colonization of Panama.
They start anew. Again, he stops the song. The music — too flat, too cold — dies. “This is important!” he says, pleading for more drama, more emotion. “You guys didn’t watch movies, man?”
The rehearsal goes on like this, with Perez standing over an electric piano, a gold cross dangling from his neck, frustration growing with each bloodless start. It’s not their musicianship he questions. He’s after something less tangible. “You know how to play correctly? That doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “That’s like when a machine washes clothes correctly.”
Finally, Perez hears what he wants. A more fluid, more resonant rendition of Patria fills the room. He asks them: Who didn’t feel the difference? “If you didn’t, there’s the door,” he says. “You can get out of here.” No one dares move. “This is what we do,” he says. “Puedes. Puedes.” (“You can. You can.”)
The next night, the audience is thousands deep under a gorgeous Central American sky. The sun sets, the air cools. The big band, about 30 strong, sets up under the lights. “Viva Panama!” Perez shouts into a microphone. “Viva!” the crowd roars back. The band launches into Patria.
And just like that, in front of all these people, Perez does it again: He cuts it off. The rhythm doesn’t sound right. He instructs the band to make random noise, to disguise the awkward silence. Then he starts the whole thing over.
Perez, who is 47, is revered enough in Panama that he could read takeout menus and still draw an ovation. But there is something striking, on this night, about his demand for a do-over on the big stage. In Perez’s world, as anyone who has played with or studied under him can attest, traditional rules and boundaries rarely apply. For him, jazz is at once all about the music and not about the music at all.
A FEW YEARS BACK, Roger Brown and Larry Simpson, respectively the president and provost of Berklee College of Music, began planning a new institute devoted to improvisation. Berklee, with more than 4,000 students, already offered many paths for the up-and-coming. Yet Brown and Simpson wanted to enhance the school’s position as arguably the country’s premier institution for contemporary music training.
They found a willing benefactor in Berklee trustee John Connaughton, a Bain Capital executive, amateur guitarist, and longtime music lover. So Brown and Simpson had the kernel of an idea, and now they had the money. All they needed was the right leader.
It quickly became clear who that was: Danilo Perez, a world-class pianist who had been teaching at Berklee and the prestigious New England Conservatory. His jazz chops were widely acknowledged — lots of recognition from the Grammys, a pile of critically acclaimed albums, ensembles with legends Dizzy Gillespie and Wayne Shorter. But it was Perez’s work as an educator, particularly his devotion to mentoring young musicians in Panama, that made him the natural choice to define and lead the new program.
For more than 25 years, Perez has used music to impart lessons on craft, discipline, responsibility, and beauty. In 2003, he founded the Panama Jazz Festival, which has become a major draw for fans and aspiring musicians across Latin America, who crowd into concerts, workshops, and auditions for coveted scholarships to Berklee and other conservatories.
Two years later, Perez started the Fundacion Danilo Perez in Panama City, where several hundred children ages 8 to 14, including many from drug- and crime-infested areas, receive an education in much more than just music. The nonprofit, in a former conservatory building, operates as a haven from the streets, full of instruments, books, and role models who teach principles like respect and honesty alongside rhythm and music theory. In 2012, he was named a UNESCO Artist for Peace. When Peruvian singer Susana Baca, ending her set at this year’s festival, called Perez “a saint of Panama,” no one thought it hyperbole.Continued...