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A Jazz Beat in the Heart of the Americas

The Panama International Jazz Festival has solidified its position as one of the most important festivals of its kind, both in the Caribbean basin and the rest of the Americas. Panorama de las Américas chatted with Danilo Pérez, famed Panamanian pianist and director of the event, about what the upcoming festival will offer.

By: Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez

The northern winter promises to be very cold this year, so it is not surprising that many of our northern neighbors want to head south to hotter lands to bask in a little color and warmth. Visitors choosing Panama for their revitalizing winter break will enjoy more than a good climate, at least from January 12 to 17, when the city comes alive with the best international jazz. Get ready for the XII Panama International Jazz Festival.

After eleven years, this gathering of music lovers has become one of the most significant and most anticipated jazz events in the Caribbean basin and Latin America. For several years now, the celebration has taken place at three hubs: northwestern Panama City hosts concerts at Ciudad del Saber (CdS), specifically at the Athenaeum and the CdS Convention Center Auditorium, while the heart of the city’s colonial district (Old Quarter) falls under the spell of music at Danilo’s Jazz Club at the glamorous American Trade Hotel. “The Festival continues to grow sustainably. We have a waiting list of more than four hundred groups from around the world that hope to participate,” explains Danilo Pérez, Panamanian pianist and the mastermind behind this event since its inception.

This year’s list of participating artists is long and very attractive. A new distinction is the concept of “Resident Artist,” the first of which will be the great U.S. drummer Brian Blade, who is also a composer, session musician, and singer. “He and his group, Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, will participate in the Children of the Light project, along with me and John Patitucci,” says Pérez. Legendary saxophonist Benny Golson will perform with his quartet, the other members of which are Buster Williams, Carl Allen, and Mike LeDonne.

And since the sax is synonymous with the soul of jazz, Miguel Zenón, one of the new stars of this instrument, will make an appearance under the aegis of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute. We will also be treated to Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martínez, as well as saxophonist Patricia Zárate’s Chilean group, Mapu Jazz, which will debut as a special guest with singer Claudia Acuña, considered the most successful Chilean jazz artist of all time. Germany is represented by Uwe Kropinski and Michael Heupel; France by Ricardo del Fra; the United States by Matt Marvuglio; and Panama by artists Rubén Blades and Omar Alfanno, among so many others.

The inclusion of Rubén Blades is intriguing, since people outside the music world generally associate his name more with salsa than jazz. His style has been called “intellectual salsa” and he is known as the “poet of salsa” in many countries. His songs are extremely popular and he is considered one of the most successful and prolific singer-songwriters of Spanish-speaking America. Danilo Pérez explains why his fellow countryman’s music is universal and why it is not so odd to put his name on the program.

“Rubén is very well known as a Latin singer, but in reality, aside from his career in salsa, he has also been an actor and made enormous contributions to jazz, since he has stepped outside his comfort zone like no other salsa musician. Not only did he record with me on my first album, play jazz arrangements with the Panama Jazz Festival Big Band, and help celebrate International Jazz Day with Herbie Hancock, but he based his most famous salsa number, ‘Pedro Navaja’ on ‘Mack The Knife,’ the jazz standard introduced by the great Louis Armstrong. The trio version of his piece ‘Paula C’ was recorded on my album Live at the Jazz Showcase, and he has become a model for new generations of jazz. If you attend jazz festivals, you will realize that Rubén is much more than a salsa musician and you will understand the natural connection between us.”

This year, the Festival is preparing a tribute to Eric Dolphy, one of the most significant figures in the emergence of the free jazz movement. A talented musician on many instruments —and a clarinet virtuoso and an exceptional flautist— Dolphy was at the forefront of the effort to revitalize jazz in the 1960s. “Honoring Eric Dolphy is something very special, since his father was Panamanian and he exemplifies the notable position of Panamanians in the history of jazz. The U.S. occupation created many problems for Panama, but it also brought jazz music, and the Festival is committed to using this resource to bridge the distance between two peoples who are learning to forgive and walk the road to peace side by side. Jazz has united us and we should accept our history, understand it, study it, and feel proud of the good things we have accomplished as a country. Eric Dolphy is one of the unknown success stories in the treasure trove of jazz that is Panama.”

This year, teachers from the Berklee College of Music, the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, the New England Conservatory, and the prestigious Paris Conservatory will come to audition young musicians. According to managers for the Danilo Pérez Foundation, the eleven previous editions of the Festival have arranged more than 1,500 auditions. “More than thirty musicians from Panama and about fifty from the rest of Latin America, some of them from very poor families, have been accepted at these academic institutions. One of the greatest achievements of the Foundation is that all the students sent abroad to study have returned to Panama and are making a decent living from music. Thanks to the fact that this ‘investment’ has returned to Panama, a new generation of musicians with a social conscience is working hard with even newer generations, forging musicians who use their art as a tool of social transformation,” notes Danilo.

Meanwhile, the 2015 edition of the Festival is here. The excellent program of performances will conclude on Saturday the 17th with a free mass concert on the esplanade of Ciudad del Saber’s Central Quad. Starting at three in the afternoon, Panamanians and foreign visitors alike will plant folding chairs on the grass and listen to performers who have been saving their most stunning performances for this farewell to the 2015 Festival, as they dream of an even better 2016 Festival.

What can we expect from the event in 2016? “In 2016, as always, we will seek the best jazz artists in the world, especially those who have not been able to come before; we will bring in the educational institutions that support us and invite others as well. The auditions and master classes will continue, as will the Music Therapy Symposium. We hope to further develop this aspect of the Festival, so that students from Panama and the rest of Latin American can experience Berklee without having to leave the country and benefit from a world-class education that is accessible to all, regardless of socio-economic status,” concludes the Panamanian musician.

For further information, visit www.panamajazzfestival.com.

 

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