The superstar-studded lineup for the live concerts capping off the week-long Panama Jazz Festival in Panama City, was impressive. Jazz icon and 14 Grammy-award-winning pianist and composer Herbie Hancock. Two time Latin Grammy-winning singer Susana Baca. Panamanian actor and musician Rubén Blades. Improvisational guitarist and Grammy nominee Bill Frisell. Miles Davis contemporary, multiple Grammy winner, and revered composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter along with his stellar quartet. Little did we know we would be blown away by some scene-stealing students.
The Danilo Pérez Foundation
Acclaimed Panamanian jazz pianist Danilo Pérez had an idea. What if he could pass some of his skills on to Panamanian children? How would that change their lives? How would it change Panama?
Hard work and a cadre of partners who shared his vision resulted in the creation of the Fundacion Danilo Pérez (Danilo Pérez Foundation) in 2005 in a donated building In a quickly gentrifying neighborhood of Panama City called Casco Viejo on what is now the border between “new” Casco Viejo and the still downtrodden El Chorillo neighborhood. Here, a staff of teachers (many of them former foundation students) teach jazz to any child who wants to learn. And man do they learn. A dizzying number of foundation students go on to graduate from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston as well as other international music schools.
As if running the foundation and changing children’s lives with music isn’t enough, Pérez, a Fulbright Scholar, is also the founder and artistic director of the Panama Jazz Festival, the founder and artistic director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute at Berklee College of Music and is part of the Grammy-winning Wayne Shorter Quartet. In November 2012 he was also named a UNESCO Artist for Peace.
A very hard act to follow
The Panama Jazz Festival week was filled with daytime workshops during which internationally acclaimed jazz musicians worked with Panamanian hopefuls and late-night jam sessions during which an open stage policy encouraged creative collaboration.
It was fitting that the three-night Jazz Festival concert series at Theater Anayansi, a well-attended highlight of the event, was kicked off by a group comprised of some of the foundation’s up and coming pint-sized stars. They not only opened the concert series, they blew the lid off of it.
The group of boys, dressed in tuxedos and struts, teased, toyed and tantalized their way through two songs, including the classic, Cantaloupe Island. Daring solos were performed. Brave musical chances were taken. Smiles were flashed. The audience was on their feet.
Poor Herbie Hancock
Even a jazz legend like Herbie Hancock had to admit that the students were a hard act to follow but he took the stage anyway as the headliner of the night and did his own roof-blowing-off on the piano, including his own rendition of Cantaloupe Island (a song he composed). We loved it. But we also secretly wished the kids would come back out.
Sleeping with the stars
The Hotel El Panama was the host hotel for the Panama Jazz Festival and all of the festival’s big names were staying there. We were too and this meant we had the chance to get a picture of Eric with Herbie Hancock in the lobby.
We were also sitting at the table next to Susana Baca and her crew at breakfast one morning when they opened one of the local papers to discover a big spread on the singer including an enormous pull quote that read “Of course I’m a diva”. This inspired raucous laughter from the group.
A diva in action
We got the chance to see the diva in action during the concert the following night but first Bill Frisell and his band, including Jenny Scheinman on violin, Tony Scherr on bass, Greg Leisz on peddle steel and Kenny Wollesen on drums took the stage. This was familiar ground for us. We’ve seen Frisell perform several times and enjoyed other band members during performances in other groups when we were still living in New York City and seeing some of the best live music in the world.
For this occasion, the quintet hurtled into imaginative rethinkings of Beatles and John Lennon classics which were fresh and familiar at the same time. You can check out these reinterpretations on Frisell’s recent album, All we are saying.
Then it was diva time and Susana Baca took the stage barefoot and wearing a two-tone flowing dress clearly custom tailored to allow her to sweep and float across the stage. A large part of her considerable presence had nothing to do with her lauded voice. She tip-toed, she gestured, she smiled her whole-face smile.
Her voice, sometimes sounding like a one-woman version of the Buena Vista Social Club, was not always strong. Her presence, however, was. Did we mention that she is also the Minister of Culture in her native Peru? Yeah. Diva.
You can’t keep a good jazz man down
Unbeknownst to most concert goers, Wayne Shorter had been in the hospital during the 24 hours before he took the stage with the rest of his quartet: Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on upright bass, Brian Blade on drums.
Shorter’s performance was only fleetingly affected by the fact that he wasn’t feeling well and his set was punctuated with moments when he masterfully found exactly the right time and place to blow his horn as his band raged around him. Understatement at its finest.
The real fun was watching the grinning good time John and Brian were having as they riffed off each other and the crowd favorite was clearly hometown boy Pérez on piano.
Panama Jazz Festival finale in the City of Knowledge
The Panama Jazz Festival is traditionally capped off with a full afternoon and evening of free performances that bring together the musicians that have been featured during the previous week of music. In years past this popular free event had been held in a park in the Casco Viejo neighborhood but with gentrification projects tearing up the streets in that part of town and the number of festival growers swelling a new location had to be found this year.
The co-called “City of Knowledge” area of Panama City was chosen. This area, which was once part of the US-controlled Canal Zone, is now a sort of think tank managed by a non-profit organization committed to “exchange, growth, and innovation” in Panama.
A large grassy area within the City of Knowledge development proved the right spot for the finale, though we have to say that the much-anticipated performance by Rubén Blades (locals pronounced his last name “Blah – dess” by the way) was a snoozer anchored by a lethargic version of “Mack the Knife.” Where was the Latin Jazz and Afro Cuban music this former Panamanian tourism minister and Presidential candidate is also known for?
Luckily, a slew of superstars, foundation professors, Pérez, and many others returned to the stage for a jam-packed jam session with the Panama Jazz Festival Big Band for an appropriately raucous end to the event.
Panama Jazz Festival travel tip
When you’re visiting the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City stop by the Danilo Pérez Foundation and check out what they’re doing and make a donation if you can. If you’re lucky, some of their rockin’ students will be burning it up.
Here’s more about travel in Panama