Live Jazz: The 7th Panama Jazz Festival

By Fernando Gonzalez

Panama City, Panama. The 7th Panama Jazz Festival, celebrated in Panama City January 11-16, concluded Saturday with a free, outdoor concert at Plaza Catedral, in front of the historic cathedral in Old Panama City. What started only a few years ago as a Quixotic adventure by Panamanian pianist, Grammy winner and educator Danilo Pérez has become one of the most significant events in jazz, and music education,  in Latin America.

But as good as the music was throughout the week, it was only part of the story. The festival features the participation of educational institutions such as the New England Conservatory, Berklee College of Music, the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico, Fundazione Siena Jazz from Siena, Italy, and the Golandsky Piano Institute at Princeton University. And the educational activities — directed by saxophonist Patricia Zárate, Perez’s wife — included educational programs, clinics and workshops ranging from Panamanian Folklore to yoga, a children’s program and technology. Also, during this festival it was announced the launching of Berklee College of Music’s Global Jazz Institute, a new, interdisciplinary initiative.

Danilo Perez

“The festival was a labor of love, not just for me but for many people, Carmen Aleman, Robin Tomchin, Javier Carrizo, many people,” said Pérez in an interview Saturday. “But also many people would come and tell me ‘Jazz? In Panama? Salsa maybe, but jazz? Really?’ And in our first year I put up most of the money and frankly, I almost lost everything. We barely made it. But in the second year we got one sponsor, Samsung, and that helped; and the third year we got another, Toyota, and then the administrations in Panama joined in and helped out — and here we are.”

“I know now, for some people it looks like this just happened, that it started yesterday. But it didn´t happen that way,” continues Perez, who notes he started educational activities 25 years ago.  “Many people have helped. This has become a movement.¨

This year’s edition was attended by an estimated 22,000 people (again, a reminder:  for jazz, in Panama).

Ellis Marsalis

The event is now the main promotional and educational program of the Danilo Pérez Foundation, an organization created in 2005 to promote social change through education in music.

The festival´s headliners this year included pianist Ellis Marsalis’s trio, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Carlos Garnett, singer Lizz Wright, bassist John Patitucci, guitarist Tom Patitucci, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and percussionist Jamey Haddad, alongside the ubiquitous, ever present Perez on piano.

Following a festival tradition of paying tribute to a Panamanian jazz figure, this year’s event was dedicated to Panamanian pianist Sonny White (neé Ellerton Oswald) who in the mid-1930s worked with Sidney Bechet, Teddy Hill, and Billie Holiday, among others. Notably, White was the pianist for Holiday on “Strange Fruit.”

Musically, the festival offered some extraordinary moments, beginning on Thursday with Marsalis’ soberly elegant performance leading a trio also featuring Jesse Boyd on bass and Jason Marsalis, drums, as well as the stunning set by Lovano, Perez, Patitucci, Carrington and Haddad.  Friday’s program followed with a moving (and effective) appearance by Garnett,  a Panamanian player perhaps best known in the US for his work with Miles Davis, and  a quietly powerful performance by Wright — made  even more remarkable by the fact that she was supposed to be on her way to Costa Rica for a vacation.

Lizz Wright

But a last minute cancellation due to illness by singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and a personal plea from Pérez, brought Wright to Panama. She turned out to be an inspired choice. Performing nearly without rehearsal with an ad hoc (albeit deluxe) backup band, Wright offered a set of standards and originals with uncommon aplomb and grace.  She has a dark, rich voice with deceptive range, and her dramatic, opening number, “I Loves You Porgy,” sung a cappella, silenced the cavernous Teatro Anayansi and the raucous Panamanian audience. It also set the tone. There were several high points in the set,  but the called-on-the-spot duet with Pérez on “Embraceable You” was a reminder of the nature and power of jazz — not just improvisation and swing and soul but also smarts, adventure and risk-taking.

But if the music was impressive, the loudest noise was the buzz of educational activities, not only because of the teachers at hand (Lovano, the Patitucci brothers, and Haddad offered hands on workshops throughout the week) but the level of participation.

“New England Conservatory came first. Berklee [College of Music] started coming in 2006, and both soon realized that something was happening, ” says Perez who is a Berklee and NEC alumnus, has taught at both schools, and is now the artistic director of Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute. “They realized we have grown organizationally but also in concerts and clinics and workshops. When they first came we had 4 concerts now we have 15. We have 80 clinics, panels, workshops. And they have seen these kids grow up before their eyes. Their level has gone up. The first year we auditioned for scholarships nobody qualified. We gave one scholarship and it went to Melisa Saldaña from Chile. Now …”

This time, an estimated 830 students attended the educational program, eight scholarships were given out to Berklee (seven to Panamanian students, one to a Costa Rican pianist)  and six to the Golandsky Piano Institute at Princeton, N.J..

This will have an impact long after the music has faded.  A reminder that at the Panama Jazz Festival, what happens onstage is only part of the story.

Lizz Wright and Ellis Marsalis photos courtesy of Toddi J. Norum:


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