The Jazz Conquest

Charismatic Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez, director and founder of this musical encounter, was named Unesco Artist for Peace in 2014 in recognition of his academic and social work.

Text and photos:  Winnie T. Sittón



remember the first Panama Jazz Festival as if it was yesterday. The year was 2003 and every one of the concerts inspired an overabundance of complete and genuine joy seldom seen before in the city. It was something new for Panama, but not because the genre was new to the isthmus; there were Panamanian exponents of jazz and international jazz musicians had performed in the country. It was new because Panama had never before hosted a festival of this size featuring internationally renowned contemporary jazz artists.

Many Panamanians attended every one of the concerts at that first festival, hoping to squeeze the most out of the great musical experience and praying that it would never end and wasn’t simply a “hello and goodbye,” as had been the case with other cultural undertakings. Although necessary and beneficial, these events are risky and often financially unfeasible and unsustainable. I am pretty sure that, although no one said it out loud, those of us in attendance were secretly praying that the festival would return the following year and, if it wasn’t too much to ask, forever.   

Sixteen years after that first daring and iconic festival it is extremely gratifying to be able to say that the Panama Jazz Festival is still alive. Moreover, the event has grown over the years to become Panama’s most important cultural gathering and one of the most outstanding of its kind in Latin America.

We owe all this to 53-year-old Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez, the festival’s founder and director. Far from working alone, Danilo has a support team and a crowd of young volunteers who, year after year, roll up their sleeves and make the event happen. It is, however, only fair to say that the charismatic “Cholo” Pérez (as he is lovingly known in Panama) is the heart and soul of the festival. He is responsible for bringing together the Panamanian government, private enterprise, relevant international academic institutions, and the world’s greatest jazz players to make the impossible possible.

And so, since 2003, the festival has welcomed to Panama musical legends such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, and Billy Cobham, to mention only four artists whose careers are certain to go down in jazz history. The festival has also welcomed vocal greats Omara Portuondo and Susana Baca and Latin jazz geniuses like Chucho Valdés, as well as amazing young talents already recognized as stars, such as John Patitucci, Brian Blade, and Luciana Souza. And we must not forget Danilo Pérez, the festival’s organizer, who is among the most important contemporary jazz pianists.

The festival has also provided a platform for emerging Panamanian artists and groups such as Joshue Ashby & C3 Project, Omar Díaz’s global jazz ensemble Dedé, and Grupo Afrodisíaco.

There is room for consecrated artists from other genres too: Panamanian musicians, such as salsero Rubén Blades and, more recently, the calypso group The Beachers, who had thousands of people up and dancing at one of last year’s free outdoor concerts celebrating the band’s fiftieth anniversary. And let’s not forget the fascinating fusion inspired by Danilo himself, who encouraged folk duo Samy and Sandra Sandoval to perform with a jazz big band at the 2018 opening gala, perhaps one of the most interesting and moving concerts in recent years. 

Currently, the Panama Jazz Festival is focused on strengthening musical education and social welfare in Panama as a way of empowering the isthmus’s talented youth and generating opportunities for growth.

These programs also promote the development of creativity, musical exchanges, and camaraderie. The festival’s outstanding academic program is made possible by yearly support from prestigious educational institutions, such as the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, the New England Conservatory, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and the Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences.

Most importantly, the Panamanian government now guarantees a fixed budget for this successful musical mega-event, which means that in another 16-20 years we will still be talking about all the great creative things brought about by the Panama Jazz Festival. So be it! And if you’re planning to visit Panama in January 2019, or want to think even further ahead to January 2020, remember to take advantage of your stay to share with Panamanians the joy of having a first-rate international jazz festival. I assure you, you won’t regret it.

Panama Jazz Festival 2019

When: January 14-19, 2019

Where: Stages throughout Ciudad del Saber

International artists: Jane Bunnett, Andre Hayward, Gunhild Carling, and Corazonantes, among others

Panamanian artists: Idania Dowman, Omar Díaz, and Grupo Afrodisíaco.

Tribute to: Panamanian trombonist and trumpeter Alex Blake and his family.

Other festival activities include: 7th Latin American Music Therapy Symposium, Second Classical Music Exchange Program, and Third Symposium on the Musical, Artistic, and Cultural Expressions of Afro-descendants in Panama

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