Jazz pianist Danilo Perez spent most of last month in Panama City, his hometown. For the past four years, he has been promoting and organizing the Panama Jazz Festival. This year, for the first time, the vast majority of the musicians who performed in the festival were native Panamanians.
As he was working on the lineup and logistics, and contacting the musicians, Perez began to realize just how much of an impact Panamanians have had on jazz history, as well as today’s jazz scene.
“We are a small nation, only 3 million,” he says in a phone interview from his home in downtown Boston. “But it is pretty amazing what we have done considering the challenges we have had.”
He cites names from the distant past, such as Luis Russell, who was one of the first Latin bandleaders to make it in the United States after he moved to New Orleans, and later New York, beginning in 1919. And he cites names from the ’70s to the present, such as the great fusion drummer Billy Cobham, the bassist Santi Debriano, former Fania All-Stars trumpeter Victor Paz, saxophonists Carlos Ward and Carlos Garnett, the former Miles Davis sideman, and the late Mauricio Smith, to whom the 2006 festival was dedicated. Also in the mix is the salsa great Ruben Blades, the Harvard-educated lawyer, politician, and actor, and pianist Randy Weston, the hard-bop icon and explorer of African rhythms, whose father was born in Panama.
The Grammy Award-winning Perez will be appearing at McCarter Theater on Thursday, February 15, opening for singer Lizz Wright. Rounding out Perez’s working trio are drummer Adam Cruz and bassist Ben Street. It is a great challenge, one he has begun to meet after four years, to establish an identity as a working band and write specifically for that band.
“The baby is born. Now we have to take care of it,” Perez says. “It’s a process of working on ideas as we are playing them. It’s writing down the things that we play and later on, writing them as compositions, which is interesting. I try to use some of the lessons I have learned from Wayne (Shorter, a well-known jazz composer and the saxophonist who replaced John Coltrane in the Miles Davis Quintet in 1964). Let everyone bring to the table their own passions, what they do best. We are organizing the chaos, basically.”
Perez won his Grammy last year in the category of Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group, performing on “Beyond the Sound Barrier” with the Wayne Shorter Quartet. As a leader, he has recorded almost 10 CDs. As a sideman, he has appeared with a roster of all-time greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Haynes, Shorter, Steve Lacy, Charlie Haden, Arturo Sandoval, and many others.
Perez is a fascinating combination of laid-back and exuberant. His warmth and intelligence come across whether he is speaking in Spanish or English. Since coming to the United States in 1985 to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, Perez has flourished as a performer, sideman, composer, educator, and concert promoter (in addition to the Panama festival, he serves as curator for Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center Jazz Series.)
He began playing music at the age of three under the tutelage of his father, Danilo Sr., a salsa musician. As a child, he learned classical European traditions and Latin music forms. Since he was a young prodigy in Panama, Perez has been interested both in exploring Panama’s jazz connections and making sure he had an encyclopedic knowledge of Panama’s indigenous folk traditions.
Of all Central American peoples, and even when compared to most Latin American countries, Panamanians seem to be more drawn to jazz, Perez says. Part of it is the deep connections the country has with the U.S.; American political and corporate interests, for better or worse, have been operating in Panama since before the turn of the last century. But it is a result of that colonial relationship — the huge influx of Afro-Caribbean people to Panama to help build the canal in the early 1900s — that has made Panama one of the world’s great crossroads of African Diaspora music.
Perez considers Panama one of the three major areas in the Americas — the others are New Orleans and Havana — that contributed the most to the formation of jazz. We know about Cuba and America, but “not much has been written on the subject of Panama,” Perez says.
“It is the Caribbean influence that has made us unique,” Perez says. “Panama always had great African influence in our music and culture. You can go to some parts of Panama, such as Bocas del Toro, and you’d think you were in Africa.”
The distinct African-descended populations, one from the Caribbean and one that came directly from Africa to Panama, has largely merged, Perez says. This population has given Panamanian culture another characteristic — improvised music — that adapts well to jazz.
And Perez always incorporates Panamanian rhythms in his recordings. On “Panamonk” (1996), he attacks the complex music of Thelonious Monk while incorporating his own Latin styles. And for “Motherland” (2000), Perez wrote a suite that included tamborito and other indigenous forms and instruments from the Panamanian countryside.
A full professor at the New England Conservatory of Music, Perez also teaches part-time at Berklee College of Music, his alma mater. He loves teaching, he says. “It is not something that I ever planned to do. Life showed me this path, and it led me into this situation.”
Counting private students and the young players he teaches at college, Perez says, he has been teaching for the past 12 years. He is now beginning to see musicians he has tutored flourishing as working musicians. Saxophonists Miguel Zenon and David Sanchez, for example, have both benefited from Perez’s tutelage. “Looking at the number of people who are great musicians, and who are playing with great musicians, that is very exciting,” he says.
He has been practicing the Chinese healing/martial art of Tai Chi for almost two decades now, and Perez says it has kept him centered, focused, and energized. “That’s what keeps me being able to move,” he says. “A little Tai Chi and yoga, that keeps me going. I need it badly.”
Even though he can’t do it as often or as much as he used to. Now 40, Perez has been married for three years and has two daughters. Being a father and family man has changed his life immensely, but his only regret is that he didn’t do it sooner. “I guess I wasn’t ready until it happened,” he says. “When I get up in the morning, the girls are ready to go. It’s tiring, but definitely the best move I ever made.”
Lizz Wright and Danilo Perez, Thursday, February 15, 8 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. $35 to $38. www.mccarter.org or 609-258-2787.