Talking Jazz with Danilo Pérez
For Grammy-winning pianist and composer Danilo Pérez, jazz isn’t so much a form of music as it is a way of life. Born and raised in Panama, Pérez began studying music at the age of three with his father, who worked as a singer and bandleader. He went on to study at the Berklee College of Music, and through the years, has performed with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and Wayne Shorter to Roy Haynes and Wynton Marsalis. He has also recorded 14 albums as a bandleader, showcasing a modern, Pan-American sound that often weaves Panamanian rhythms with African melodies.
But in addition to his performing and recording work, Pérez has built a legacy as a “music humanitarian,” as one writer described him. He has served as a Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF, and was named a UNESCO Artist for Peace last November. In 2005, he founded the Panama-based Danilo Pérez Foundation, which uses music education to help children reach their full potential. He is also the artistic director for both the Panama Jazz Festival and the Berklee Global Jazz Institute (BGJI), the latter of which explores the social impact of music and the ways in which creativity intersects with nature. We recently spoke with Pérez about his career, and talked about the relationship that jazz shares with culture, identity, and the natural environment. Below is Pérez in his own words.
Earliest Memories of the Arts
One of the things I remember was being with my father listening to old records. I remember the first time I heard Louis Armstrong; we had an old record of his. My father played guitar, played piano. He would try to put music in everything he did. I learned mathematics, learned geography, learned certain courses through music that my father used to put songs to. I remember my father trying to make a group out of my peers. We used to play baseball; he wanted to make a little band. That's the stuff that sticks with me.
[My childhood] taught me to look at music as a tool. I was always surrounded by the idea of music as a tool to learn things: to use music as a tool to gather people together, to [create] change. [It taught me] the power of music, basically. I think that's the whole idea, the whole force behind what I'm doing right now with the Berklee Global Jazz Institute and my foundation in Panama. There's a big component to want to share that power of my childhood.
The Power of Music
Music has been proven to be a therapeutic tool; it affects our behavior. My most radical experience that I had with the power of music was from when I was a kid. We were jamming all day with my dad, and there was a guy who came to fix the washing machine. It took him seven, eight hours to do this. When he was leaving, my father gave him a carrot shredder and a fork to play, which had a sound like tchk-tchk-tchk-tchk. He got really into it. His face transformed, and he seemed very happy. After ten, 15 minutes, my father asked him how much the washing machine cost. And he said, "I can't charge you, I feel like I have to pay you." For me it was a revelation that music transcended the material power that money has. And that really stuck with me.
The Relationship Between Music and Nature
When you grow up in Panama, you grew up very close to nature. When we were kids, we used to go to the river [with my father], and he would point out the whistle of the birds. I found it fascinating from early on, the way they whistled…. Then I got into [Olivier] Messiaen. He studied bird calls and wrote a series of harmonies about them.
[Later in life,] I started meeting people that started to kind of show me the direction to go. Nathan Gray, who's the CEO of EarthTrain, and my wife, we started going on journeys deep into the jungle. When I went in, it brought a lot of things together. I already felt I knew what to do while I was in that environment, what to listen for. One thing that caught my attention deeply was the idea…of how reforestation worked as an improvisation. You plant something in nature, but then nature improvises; you don't know how it's going to come out. I started putting concepts together, like the way the trees behave with a certain rhythm, and the timing that needs to happen. That's where the first symphony in the world comes from: the jungle. I became fascinated with that.
I realized that the closer I got to nature, the more [I thought of] the idea of human development. One day we went to a river for example, and I could drink water from the river. And I had this feeling like, "Wow, how far we have come from this, buying Evian water." So for me, it connected how humans, the way we've developed, takes us on this path of destruction. Why are we trying to destroy nature? We need it to survive, and to be creative. That's why we made it a part of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, because I believe that getting closer to nature also gets you closer to your own self.
Exploring Jazz and Identity
The whole idea of jazz, for me, is that it's a creative process. Jazz was produced out of a tremendous event that showed a dark side of us: the slave trade. This music was produced by that voice: the voice of freedom, the voice of expressing equality, of expressing values that are antidotes against inequality, violence, oppression. And jazz, to me, is a tool, a creative process, that speaks out to oneself. This is the voice. If you come back to that feeling when you were born, the first thing you did was scream. What was it that you said? That's my question, always. You cry; what was it that you were trying to say? So as a practice for expressing oneself, the beautiful part about jazz is that you have independent parts that create collective victories. You have to be independent, but you also have to create a sense of community. It’s true democracy---independent voices coming into oneness.
Jazz wants to know who you are. Jazz questions what you are afraid of. Jazz tells you, “I dare you.” Jazz asks, “Who are you? Where do you come from? What did you want to say? What is your story?” Remember this music has a very strong connection with Africa…so it's a folk-rooted music. So the more I understand where I come from, I move an inch closer to playing jazz. Jazz isn't this intellectual exercise of hipness. It wasn't born out of that. It was born out of a voice of freedom. The more I look into jazz, the more I found my culture.
On His Work as a UNESCO Artist for Peace
This work is committed to the idea of delivering the message of UNESCO, which is to promote the cultural exchange for the betterment of relationships between nations, for the dealing of peace in the world. Music is a recognition of those values. For example, if you talk about the concept of harmony, there's nothing better than to witness the synchronism that happens when you and I play [different] rhythms and then start to be in synch with each other. You start feeling a groove. The groove is the proof of democracy. Even though we have different ideas about [the rhythm], we are creating a oneness. It’s the value of independent lines that come together and create an agreement.
Jazz is indescribable. It's not a genre, it's not a style. It's the language of the spirit. It's a behavior. Jazz equals courage and creativity. Jazz is the creative process, it's a human necessity for discovering. The greatest tool to end racism has been jazz. Blacks and whites have been playing this music together for years in a harmonious way. Meanwhile, the political advances and the philosophy still [lag] behind; racism is still an issue. If we could apply the platform that jazz provides to work through disagreements, we would be in a better position.
We just came from a trip to Africa. That was my first Artist for Peace trip. It was amazing. We did a cultural exchange with the Berklee Global Jazz Institute and we took the students, and the experience was gratifying. I feel like I have come back with so much optimism about the world, so much understanding. It's impossible to replace water and food, but [the people we met] told me that at times they were hungry and thirsty, but when they had music in their hands, they had hope. That was incredible.