Ten Years of Just Jazz

For a decade now, the Panama Jazz Festival has been bringing the best concerts and musical events to Panama, securing its position as the premier gala on the country’s cultural calendar and one of the most important festivals of this type in Latin America. This year the festival (January 14-19) will include renowned performers to help celebrate its anniversary.

By Roberto Quintero
Photos: Carlos Gómez

When January rolls around, everyone in Panama starts to smile at the thought of the greatly anticipated musical event: the Panama Jazz Festival. It might seem unlikely, but Panamanians can no longer conceive of early summer without this music fest that fills the city with rhythm and harmony. Expectations are so high that the atmosphere takes on a more cheerful and vibrant tone as soon as the first note sounds. The end result may be magical, but there are no special effects involved, nor it is merely good luck.

The festivities have gradually worked their way into the affections of audiences, who have watched the festival grow since it was first held in 2003. What started as a modest dream with more effort than hope is now, ten years later, the highlight of the country’s cultural calendar, and one of the most important festivals of this type in Latin America, as well as an essential part of life in Panama.

One of the reasons jazz has become an agent of change in Panama is undoubtedly pianist Danilo Pérez. Aside from being the most famous Panamanian jazz musician, the president and founder of the festival is a great guy whose charisma and charm have spread his love of jazz to his compatriots. “I am proud of the Panamanian people who, regardless of social class or economic status, have learned to enjoy the highest quality music in harmony with their environment,” commented the creator of albums like Panamonk and Central Avenue.

This indefatigable musical warrior was not satisfied with bringing Panama the best jazz performers on the planet year after year; he also wanted to keep some of this talent in Panama. This led to the inclusion of an educational platform as part of the festival, with workshops and auditions for scholarships and entry into the most prestigious music schools, creating opportunities that have benefitted many young people over the years. “The event’s educational platform is at the core of the festival’s mission; it has always been intended to help develop the country’s tourism, economy, and culture. A nation cannot make sustainable progress if individuals are not educated,” explained the jazz musician. For this and many other programs developed with the Danilo Pérez Foundation, he was recently named a UNESCO Artist for Peace.

And so, with incredible improv sessions that last until dawn, mass open air concerts, discussions, and master classes (which are really seeds of love planted in a musical field to yield future harvests) ten years have passed, ladies and gentlemen. The continued existence of the festival certainly merits our enthusiasm: the Panama Jazz Festival is now ten years old! In celebration, Pérez has attracted a lineup of music stars that would be the envy of many an organizer.

One example will suffice: the legendary Herbie Hancock will play the first nighttime concert. Not even the organizer himself can believe that Hancock will be in Panama! “This show is a divine gift. Herbie is one of the living legends of jazz and the fact that he is coming to Panama is a huge honor. The musical genius will give a super concert and then he will stay here a couple of days to see a little of the country. I know he’ll love Panama,” he remarked. If that’s just the beginning, imagine what else is in store!

International Guests

To give you an idea of what you can expect during this anniversary event, we present the international musicians who will play at the Panama Jazz Festival 2013.

Herbie Hancock 

Genius and living jazz legend. The U.S. pianist, keyboardist, and composer is probably one of the most dynamic musicians in modern times. He has experimented across nearly the entire jazz continuum since the age of bebop, and after trying genres like pop and dance music, he says he has been influenced by almost all of the musical trends of the second half of the 20th century.

He redefined the role of the rhythm section in jazz and was one of the creators of the post bop sound during the 1960s. He was also a pioneer in electronic music, being one of the first jazz musicians to adopt the use of synthesizers, he also enthusiastically embraced funk. He is the author of two popular jazz standards: “Watermelon Man” (1962) and “Cantaloupe Island” (1964).

Bill Frisell

This renowned U.S. composer and arranger has been one of the most important jazz guitarists since the 1980s. He is eclectic by nature and cannot be pigeonholed; his personal vision of music has also led him down the paths of progressive folk, country, classical music, and the modernist trend known as “noise music.” He is famous for extensive experimentation in the use of effects to create unique sounds with his instrument.

He made two of his most acclaimed albums in the first half of the 1990s: Have a Little Faith, a sweeping study of almost all variants of U.S. musical culture, and This Land, which complemented his search by presenting a set of original pieces. He also composed music for soundtracks to the movies of the phenomenal Buster Keaton. Nominated for three Grammys, he won the 2005 Best Contemporary Jazz Album award for Unspeakable.

Susana Baca

The extraordinary Peruvian singer and composer is one of the great figures of Latin American folklore. She is respected around the world for her contributions to the resurgence and recognition of Afro-Peruvian music and her valuable work recovering nearly forgotten harmonies and rhythms. A cultural researcher, teacher, and politician, she has also served as Perú’s Minister of Culture.

She is a two-time Latin Grammy winner: in 2002 she won for one of the most iconic albums of her career, Lamento negro, which was originally recorded in 1986 and reissued in 2001 under Scottish producer and singer David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label. She has also been granted the Order of Arts and Letters (France) and the Order of Merit (Perú).

Wayne Shorter Quartet 

The legendary jazz saxophonist returns to Panama, along with the other great music stars who have made up his quartet for the past decade: John Patitucci on bass, Brian Blade on drums, and Danilo Pérez on piano. Considered the best jazz group of our time, this outstanding lineup of musicians was not about to miss this anniversary, especially considering the fact that they are honorary members of the Panama Jazz Festival.

“All the members of the Wayne Shorter Quartet agreed to help celebrate the festival’s tenth anniversary because they believe in the project and they are part of my family. They have seen how much time, effort, commitment, and perseverance it has taken to follow my dreams,” commented the Panamanian pianist.

After the festivities, February will mark the release of the group’s new album, titled Without a Net, representing Shorter’s historic return to Blue Note Records after an absence of forty years. The group will spend 2013 touring.


Panama Jazz Festival 2013

The tenth anniversary of this great Panamanian festival that attracts international audiences from around the region will take place January 14-19, 2013.

Activities: Three nights of grand concerts, five days of evening recitals for the entire family, jam sessions, and a week of music clinics and auditions.

International Stars in Concert: Herbie Hancock (Wednesday, Jan. 16), Bill Frisell (Thursday, Jan. 17), Susana Baca (Thursday, Jan. 17), and Wayne Shorter (Friday, Jan. 18).

The Venues: The ATLAPA Convention Center’s Teatro Anayansi (nighttime concerts), Hotel El Panamá (jam sessions with Club del Jazz), and Ciudad del Saber (clinics and evening concerts).


Grand Closing Ceremony: Open air concert on the Ciudad del Saber quad on Saturday, January 19th featuring the Panama Jazz Festival Big Band and special guest Rubén Blades. 

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