ExperiencesCultureJazz at the Heart of the Americas

Jazz at the Heart of the Americas

By Roberto Quintero
Photos: Carlos Gómez, Roberto Quintero, EFE

The 14th Panama Jazz Festival (PJF) is nearly here. From January 10 to 14, the Panamanian capital will once again become Latin America’s best jazz showcase, thanks to this mega-event that includes concerts and jam sessions, as well as clinics, master classes, and symposia. The best part is undoubtedly the educational component and the program that allow hundreds of young Latin Americans to perform admission tests in Panama and apply for partial or full financial support for study at prestigious music schools like the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory.

This year, the huge “banquet of music,” as Danilo Pérez, pianist, director, and founder of the Festival likes to call it, can boast main dishes worthy of a great feast: young singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding, one of the most scintillating names in jazz right now; Dianne Reeves, who brings more than thirty years of experience as one of the most important female singers in the genre; and Terri Lyne Carrington, drummer, composer, and producer, with three Grammys to her credit. Panama will be represented by the legendary calypso group Los Beachers, who have been performing for fifty years.

All the enjoyable revelry is underpinned by arduous production work that has been going on for more than fourteen years, thanks to the tenacity of Pérez and the indefatigable work of all the collaborators and volunteers at the Danilo Pérez Foundation. This extended effort has culminated in a law recently approved by the Panamanian Congress to ensure funds for this event in perpetuity, giving the Festival the stability to continue to grow and endure. We chatted with the Festival’s creator about this good news and other details of the event.

After so many years of working on this project, how does it feel to be holding the fourteenth PJF? 

I’m very happy, but I also feel the weight of more responsibility. Thanks to Law 312, starting in 2018 the Festival will become a sustainable project for generations to come. Right now it is even more important to educate the young, since they will be the ones making decisions in the coming decades.

What challenges come up every year with an event of this magnitude and how do you maintain consistency over the years? 

The biggest challenge has always been finances. Under Law 312, two of the most important events in the festival, which most benefit Panamanians, the educational component and the open-air concert, will be sustainable. Our next challenge will be to make annual Danilo Pérez Foundation programs sustainable, including those that follow-up on all the scholarship recipients, and the educational programs that culminate in the festival.

The new law is undoubtedly a wonderful acknowledgement of your work. 

OSL126 – OSLO (NORUEGA), 11/12/2009.- La bajista y cantante estadounidense Esperanza Spalding se presenta hoy, viernes 11 de diciembre de 2009, durante el concierto por el Premio Nobel celebrado en el Oslo Spektrum de Oslo (Noruega). Este evento se celebra en honor al Premio Nobel de la Paz, el presidente de Estados Unidos, Barack Obama. EFE/BJORN SIGURDSON/PROHIBIDO SU USO EN NORUEGA

It is important to emphasize that this acknowledges the collective efforts of thousands of employees, volunteers, national and international performers, the press, government institutions, corporations, the support of international institutions, and many more, who have shown that if we want to make the world better, we can. The Law also recognizes the local work begun by my father in the 1960s and that I was able to continue on a larger scale in Panama in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, social change through music is being carried out on a global scale by the Berklee Global Jazz Institute.

Do you think you’re fulfilling your commitment? How do you measure the impact of the PJF on Panamanian jazz and the growth of Panamanian music in general? 

The goal has been achieved. Thanks to the Panama Jazz Festival and the work of the musicians, workers, and volunteers at the Danilo Pérez Foundation, Panama is now on the world culture map. The impact is measured in the more than 240,000 people we draw to the festival every year, in the 10,000 children who participate in our educational programs annually, and in the more than four million dollars in international scholarships that have been announced during the Festival. These scholarships have provided students with access to several of the best music schools in the world, including the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory. A good number of students living in extreme poverty have benefitted, helping to break the cycle of poverty and supporting the country’s economic growth. Another important aspect is that many students have returned after graduation to mentor a new generation at the Foundation. Just this year, we have been represented abroad by Foundation teachers in Chile, Taiwan, the United States and Egypt.

Do you think that Panama needs a new culture law to ensure the implementation of so many other cultural projects that are important to the country?

The country needs culture laws that are linked to education. Culture is the barometer of education. When educational levels drop, it shows in the culture. Yes, we need education-based culture laws, meritocracy, and project sustainability.

This year the PJF honors Panamanian singer Violeta Green. Why is her life and work significant in the history of jazz?  

She was one of the first jazz singers in Panama. She was versatile enough to move seamlessly between blues, bolero, jazz, and calypso. This versatility is a reflection of our culture, where many worlds, languages, and cultural experiences converge in the identity of modern Panamanians. Violeta was part of a jazz movement in Panama led by the Afro-Antilleans, along with Víctor Boa, Bat Gordon, Clarence Martin, and others, who are an important part of our country’s culture and history.

How do you feel about having Esperanza Spalding, one of the jazz figures of the moment, participate in the 2017 Festival?

It is a great honor to have Esperanza and Dianne Reeves, as well. I met Esperanza at a concert at the Ryles Club in Boston when she was studying at Berklee. She had barely said hello when she told me that my album Motherland (2000) had been important and influential in her life and she sang some of the songs for me. It was an emotional meeting. We have been good friends ever since.

How far would you like to take the Panama Jazz Festival? 

My model is the Montreal Jazz Festival, which attracts one million people every year. A small city becomes the center of world jazz and draws people from around the world to see Canada and enjoy jazz. They even have a music park for children. I would like the PJF to become the Montreal Jazz Festival of Latin America.

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