Interview with Danilo Pérez: Each Culture Has Its Own Blues

Today we hand over the digital microphone to writer Estefanía Romero who hosts the Mexican jazz website Bopspots and talked to legendary modern jazz musician Danilo Pérez about life, music and global challenges and issues today.

The piano player, composer, and educator Danilo Pérez, narrates, through this interview, how a lifetime of work and passion have led him to where he is today, and higlights some inspirational figures in his life: his father, Dizzy Gillespie and Wayne Shorter.

The pianist also explains two terms that describe his musical statements: Global Jazz and “comprovisation”.

At the same time, he offers us a profile of the history of jazz in Panama and the Panamanians who have been important in shaping jazz as we know it today.

This interview was conducted shortly after the release of Danilo’s Grammy-nominated album Secrets Are The Best Stories with Amercian jazz singer Kurt Elling.

 E: I have followed you since I discovered you in that concert with Dizzy Gillespie and The United Nations Orchestra.

D: It is my pleasure. It’s an honor.

E: I already said many things about Secrets Are the Best Stories, now I wish you could give me your comments on it. There is a lot of experimentation and tribute on this album, right?

D: Yes. Basically, what it is trying to do is to narrate very specific criticisms on the problems that are overwhelming us in the world: migration, systematic racism… they don’t let us move on, they affect a lot of areas and they are stopping us from growing as a society with intercultural dialogues.

And, artistically, we wanted to put the record on different platforms: singing, using tools like our Latin influence, to understand parameters and the challenges that arrive when you are dealing with the voice… for example, because of the rhythms.

It is part of what we wanted to do with this format singer-instrumentalist. I am a social activist, since the very beginning I said I wanted to tell stories that are important for this moment.

E: I’m quite interested on that part too. You have been an artist for the UNESCO, you started the Danilo Pérez Foundation…  what would you say that is the link between music and politics and society? From your own perspective.

D: We are facing an urgent call for world action on climate change, on pandemics, on war, on social change, on structured racism. The last month… you may see all the protests in the US against systematic racism and the police reform. I think this has caused an unprecedented massive support all over the world.

So… my base, how I relate to these issues comes from my childhood, from my father [also named Danilo Pérez]. Back in 1967, he wrote a thesis on how music could be used to increase concentration and learning developments on kids.

He made an experiment while educating: he trained kids in poor places with few education privileges. The first year, they failed. On the second year, everything came out fine because he took the educational program and adapted songs to it, so the kids could sing the information.

I learned Maths and Science while making songs, working with my friends on the community and playing in group. From that moment there was an element that I connected; it was natural. There is a funny story… my father says that when I was two years old, he used to throw all the records in the floor.

The show started when friends arrived, so he would ask me to search for the album Pata Pata, by Miriam Makeba.

I would find it among 500 records. If you think about it, there is magic on that because she was a social activist and she fought against racism. When I had the chance to play with her, we were able to talk a lot about this matter.

I would tell her: “Since I was a two year old, I had already decided that I was going to be next to you”.

That is a period, the fundamental base. The other part was when I became part of The United Nations Orchestra… what you mentioned. Dizzy Gillespie taught us music as a powerful tool for diplomacy. He wanted us to learn that we could get the world together through music, that was one of the greatest learnings that I got from him.

I learned that intercultural dialogue’s power is vital, and music can provide that space, which is a neutral space where you can have productive conversations.

I started to think about this matter of cultural diplomacy, can you see why? Because of the nature of his project. He included people from all America, Puerto Rico, Cuba… the whole world. I truly saw how he taught us… I saw in music a tool of possibilities for human’s restoration.

And, the last part… I think these are the three important events that I went through in my life. The third one is the time that I spent with Wayne Shorter, my relationship with him. Wayne says that it is important to celebrate our existence as human beings and it is important to live convinced, with the hope that this world isn’t ending. Music is the antidote to avoid losing hope.

E: Well, Dizzy Gillespie also set the statement that being a good person is important. I can imagine that was also a great inspiration for you.

D: Yes. It meant having examples. Sometimes there is a confusion. We have plenty stories of big artists that projected their existential problems, diseases, their relations with drugs, their behavioural problems. We lack figures…

E: Role models…

D: Role models. You see? Dizzy Gillespie, my father, Wayne Shorter, they are my role models. They told me to be a great artist, to be committed, to study, to do well in what I do… There is still a greater responsibility – How do you share all these so that you make a positive impact in the community where you live? Besides making music to reach people’s hearts. It is about concrete things that artists can do.

After all those experiences, there is one big question I ended up with – How can I make my retribution?

And, once I left Panama I had one of my first goals: helping my friends, my brothers from Panama… and then Latin America, and move on understanding that we need a proper access to education.

E: I suppose that inspired the creation of the Danilo Pérez Foundation.

D: Exactly. I am going back in time. In Panama I grew up in a jazz environment, Panama has a history of great jazz artists, which is not widely known.

It has a history because of the Panama Canal, there was a group of Panamanians who were already linked with the jazz birth; for example, Luis Russell, who was from Bocas del Toro, he was a pianist an orchestra conductor of the band in which Louis Armstrong played… it was Russell’s orchestra and Louis Armstrong got in it.

I learned that playing with Roy Haynes, the great jazz drummer, who is from Boston.

Roy Haynes told me: “I bet you don’t know who gave me my first job in New York”. I asked whom. He said “a Panamanian… I knew you didn’t know… it was Luis Russell”. Hence, you start thinking: wow! A Panamanian helped one of the jazz legends. It makes you proud. For Latin Americans these are important news to know.

After that I knew about Sonny Clark, the pianist who plays with Billie Holiday in one of the most controversial themes, one that is named “Strange Fruit”, a recognized song in the US, which lyrics are profound and considered the mere exposure of racism in the US. Its piano man was a Panamanian, you see?

Later, the drummer Billy Cobham in jazz fusion. There are many referents like them. To me, acknowledging the link with jazz, using jazz as the fundamental base of the message that life has shown me… this is the vehicle to tell my story.

Thus… my mentors and the needs of my country. In 1989, the US invasion to Panama basically cut off all the jazz scene we had. And the first concert after the invasion was mine. Just imagine. I was going to present my band in Panama on December 22nd, I took my band in, it was my debut after being in the US.

On December 20th Panama was taken by the US, so my concert was cancelled. Therefore, I called my friend, the promoter, I said to him: “Look, if we are going to die, I want to die playing music, I feel like I need to play”. We made the concert on a private club.

One hundred and some more people got together, some of them were in favor, others were against the invasion, a heavy environment, lots of sadness. I played for three hours and at that moment there was not any fight, any discord either. That was the accent mark, you see? It made me realize that music truly invalidates those angry feelings you have, which is therapeutic, transforming.

E: Wow, that is a hell of a story!

D: Heavy, right? These experiences remain and I wanted them for other people too. That is why I dedicated myself to work projects on Panama, with young kids. I teach them once a year. I made a commitment of staying four or five days, teaching for free.

Furthermore, traveling with Dizzy, we went to San Sebastian, Spain, and we met with a very specific situation: that place transformed important cultural tourism in Europe through a jazz festival.

I had some sort of déjà vu, a dream, I thought that I would love to have that in Panama, to make it a cultural capital, even just for a week or one day. Then, in 2003, after my experience with Wayne I decided to make the festival with the support of Patricia Zárate, my wife, she was pregnant, it was insane.

We only had one support from the municipal authorities, and everything was gone. Just imagine having a festival without resources, we almost broke. I called my friends, they knew what I was trying to take into my country. I got support, they even took me to live cooking TV shows to promote the tickets, so we would not end up losing money.

And so it happened, we were able to make sure that this was not just one time experience. I saw it clear, we weren’t looking for commercializing an event and money benefits, but we were searching for the formalization of the idea of sharing education in my country, so that an environment could grow for my colleagues to reach a level to compete and have auditions on a global scale.

That’s when the Foundation came alive, and its main objective is to make a full development of its students as musicians and human beings so that they can be productive people in their societies, so that we can break poverty and inequality circles all over the world. I can say that we have made it.

We gave them education, we prepared them… people from poor neighborhoods even with a low access to food, we gave them opportunities to compete in an international level at the jazz festival… that’s when Berklee came in.

And it starts to become a chain. Now I feel very proud because in the middle of this pandemics, many of them have kept their commitment with education, with moving on with this idea and they have been able to create income sources. That makes me really proud, I know that it works.

E: Now… your father had to do a lot with this. You started as a 2 or 3 year old. How would you say that you found your own voice? Because we listen to your music and it has your own mark – Danilo Pérez.

D: Wow, thanks for that comment, Estefanía. I think I follow my process since I was little. For example, one of the visions I had while being seated… you can sit in front of a place named Amador, in Panama, and watch the Bridge of the Americas, also the Panama Canal.

Once I saw how ships from different parts of the world passed by and what came into my mind was: how would a music with that message sound? Such a sweet message, an open platform where you can experience different cultures. I want my music to sound like that, I want my musical discourses to open platforms instead of closing them.

From that perspective, I have always looked for a balance of what we are, the folklore, the language, but also creating links and new proposals. Life has given me the chance to experience from salsa, pop, tango, Brazilian,

I’ve worked with everything, I even played the accordion… to work with jazz singers, Dizzy Gillespie. I’ve gone through all these experiences always looking for a sound of what I’m beginning to call Global Jazz.

I love it when I hear Thelonious Monk, I immediately recognize him, that is wonderful, I find an ancestral connection. But I also like the lyricism that I find in Chopin and Keith Jarrett. I want to work with those elements and see what comes out through one voice, a Latin American impulse. That is where Global Jazz comes from. I am working on a definition for it.

It is the inclusive music that embraces all nationalities, indigenous instruments, folk, a diversity of genres combined with jazz, having jazz as its fundamental base… Where we create a language that promotes music with that virtual bridge –do you remember the image of the Bridge of the Americas?– among people and cultures.

That is the music that I want to do. We, as Latin Americans, have variations of plenty perspectives, beautiful ones.

As Dizzy Gillespie said: “You are the future of this music because you keep traditions alive… culture, dancing, singing, the instruments”. So, that’s it.

E: It is fantastic that you are giving a name to that. I am fascinated while listening to your music, sometimes I hear free jazz, then there is some Latin, or some other genre… but everything comes organic, you make it sound as something else, something above those divisions.

D: [Danilo raised his arms in a pose of success] Global Jazz… many people were afraid of that word. I see it more like a work platform, this virtual function of the bridge where I grew up. Finding the blues is important, it doesn’t come from a fusion, it comes from understanding that each culture has its own blues and that’s how we teach it at the Berklee Global Jazz Institute.

The vision of the institute is to develop the jazz musician of the New World: who’s able to understand that his talent means his responsibility with society, who is sensitive, who is respectful and sees all the cultural and historical importance.

The blues was created by African American Americans, but its values ​​and concept interconnect with other cultures in terms of consciousness.

Blues is music that developed sound elements typical of the social and cultural environment since the time of slavery and these elements are also very present in other music with a marked Afro heritage.

We have a curriculum that we have developed at the Institute, where interconnected learning is essential. It is not just studying music, but also social activism, education through knowledge and experiential learning.

E: Do you consider yourself better as an improviser or as a composer?

D: That is a good question. Look. It depends. Before Wayne, I had improvised with many people, but I never felt terrified while improvising. I’m going to tell you why: because when I played, I improvised free music so I wasn’t afraid of playing over the existing harmonic shapes, but I was afraid of not knowing where to start and how it was going to end, not knowing which song or about what we were going to play.

The first day during the soundcheck with Wayne, he brought all this music, all these books. 40 minutes went by, he was trying to extract a sound from the saxophone because he hadn’t played it for a while. And I asked him: “Maestro, which theme are we using at the beginning?”. And he said: “Danilo, you can’t know the unknown”. I thought: “oh my God, what is this?”.

When I came into the stage, Brian and I were terrified. Wayne had that mysterious look on his face that’s part of him. I ended up really tired, I didn’t know what was going on. It seemed like a solfeggio class; we were running after each other. What was going on? I had no parameters…

At the second day, there were like 2500 people, 2000 or more left, only like 100 people stood there because they were fans. And he said: “I’m not worried about that because that’s what happened to us with Miles. I think that people do not applaud when they are questioning what they are hearing, and they are trying to respond”. I said: “Wow, perfect, ok”.

There came a learning. Fear gave me something I hadn’t experienced. Going in front of the stage frightened for not knowing what is going to happen, in which tone or rhythm you must start… basically is about being vulnerable. You must think on what is common to the others, work as a team, you start connecting values.

The more I was thinking the less effective my discourse was, I got disconnected. Until one day I asked him: “Maestro, I don’t know if we are in the right tone, the chords I’m listening…”. But he never spoke about music, we never spoke about music, all those parameters of criticizing and trying to do something better were taken out.

Recently we had an encounter after 20 years of being together, because of the International Jazz Day. If you could see his vision, he felt that we were all leaders, that we were ready, that he didn’t have to say anything. It was the same in the Miles Davis Quintet, no one said anything.

And I was like: “wow, you should have told me that because the first looks you gave me frightened me even more than I already was”.

There was no reaction to anything, I could get nothing, I didn’t feel the energy of “Hey, you know where you are going”. I asked. He said: “You should watch Event Horizon, with Laurence Fishburne”, it’s a really dark movie.

After the concert, we were going to Denmark, I saw the movie at 2am. He had this thing of sending me movies that were not incredible, but they came with a message.

In the movie there was a diabolical figure, something between right and wrong, and it was taking on the spaceship… right in the middle, when no one was expecting anything, an African American came out. What’s going on?! What is this?! Haha! There I was when asking myself: where are we? In which tone are we playing? In which rhythm?

In that scene from the movie, the guy pulls out some cordons, his jacket starts working and his confidence comes back because he starts returning to the spaceship. Then he, from deep inside, screams: “Here I come, mother fuckers!”. At the next day we were playing and now I had the lesson with me: I must come from deep inside, I have to lose my fear.

There was another time when my fear came back. I was doubting, getting nervous, Wayne was looking at me, I didn’t know where we were going, I was trying to do the best I could. I looked at him, in front of me there was a horse carousel, so I got disconnected and I looked at the horses in the middle of what I was playing.

I tried to put my hand wherever I could and I tried to imitate the horses [with the piano] … and Wayne Shorter came alive and said: “That’s how it’s done! That’s the thing!”. He said: “Horses! I know!”.

E: What a story!

D: My lesson was: when you disconnect yourself from what you think is music and start using images, looking for the unknown… then you are going somewhere. That is what I felt that day. From that moment on I started practicing with that conscience.

The routine I learned on classical music since I was little, what I studied on Berklee, everything I knew… I had to break that, change it. So, I began creating a whole new sort of structures for practicing.

For example, one thing I did during three months for practicing was taking the movements I saw in Tom and Jerry to play. That generated a whole new experience for me.

Wayne taught us how to be unpredictable, I understood that playing following the comedy inside the cartoon helped me to generate this non common ideas, opening a new horizon between music and images. It helped me create a new practice for this challenge.

E: Wow!

D: In terms of composition, I took that experience and named it “comprovisation”, which is the mix of composition with improvisation, you see? It’s clear. With composition you can use a pencil and an eraser, whereas in improvisation the eraser is people. That is my deduction.

E: I wasn’t expecting this explanation. This is definitely one of the most interesting things that I’ve heard on the subject.

D: Yes. If you deal with the extra baggage of thinking too much about harmonic changes and feeling like a loser, things are really hard. Also there’s a lot of people coming to hear us who don’t understand what we do, and if you start thinking about that then you fill yourself with responsibilities that don’t allow you create and being vulnerable.

That was the learning: vulnerability, more than anything else, realizing that what you do at the moment doesn’t determine who you are as an artist. Have courage. Be the example, show that nobody is perfect in front of everybody. To create with that mindset is therapeutic.

What Wayne was showing us is that, if you go to those unexpected places, the resulting magic is therapeutic. And the process is inclusive, because people start feeling part of the process while wondering: “How did they do it?”. Wayne taught us that this isn’t about oneself, it is everything. And one becomes the channel of those experiences.

When you approach those convergence points, not only as an artist, but also with the people, the chairs, the piano, the scenario… something mystic comes out!

E: Danilo… these times are strange. COVID-19 is pushing us into new dynamics of how we are going to present music. What is your perspective on this future?

D: I have been thinking a lot about these ideas of going back where we were… I personally don’t want to because being where we were, led us where we are now. First, I want to send a message of gratitude to all the artists that are working hard in these moments, those who make their communities stronger through their art.

I feel proud being part of this family. Now millions of people are statistically separated, you know? Art is getting stronger and it is connecting us, culture is connecting us.

Today, as artists we must question and turn on the subject – How are we selling music? Who is selling it? The media, the channels that bring art to the masses. It is time for us to find new alternatives for breaking this capitalism, this way we sell music, and get in touch again with the healing power of music and arts, we must prioritize this.

As teachers, we must play a crucial role to inspire the new generations so that they can use music as a tool for developing their contexts. There are values that cannot be quantified, but we feel them, in the middle of this loneliness, in the middle of our reflections.

We, as educators must recognize that many pedagogical practices haven’t been good, we must change. The educator plays an important role on perpetuating racism here in the US and he must examine what he is teaching, what is valid, what is vital. He must play a central role in change.

As Angela Davis said, it is not just about saying that you are not racist, but it is about being antiracist, and your pedagogical practice must say it too. And it is the same with migration, climate change. The artists own a non-threatening space, like the one that is created during concerts. In the future love must be told, because change comes from love.

The artist must be more direct, fearless, prepared. He must study and face this moment. I feel super optimistic working with this new generation in Panama, at the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, in many other countries, because I see young people building massive, global nets that are denouncing all those issues.

Something is going to happen, this is new, this call for global action must have consequences. This has no precedent in history.

E: Going back to that concert with Dizzy Gillespie, I swear it changed my life. Thanks to Bop Spots, I have had the fortune to interview Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval and Steve Turre, now you.

So… may I ask, how did you feel while collaborating with them? You were so young… How do you feel now looking back at that momento? And this not only being about the music, but also considering that Dizzy had a political and social message that now his disciples, including you, are spreading.

D: I live with a gratitude for having that experience. Obviously, as the time goes by, especially during these times, there is plenty time for thinking about your life, the things you have done.

Now I think about specific moments. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to participate in the Thelonious Monk piano competence, and I got the news: Dizzy Gillespie called me. I was recommended to him by Paquito, Claudio Roditi and Slide Hampton. Now I feel the shivers, but at the time I was nervous, I could not believe it. Yes, incredible.

I remember I was having a conflict with my identity as a musician, as a young man. It was one of the moments in which music tells you: this is great, you deserve it…

But I had another voice telling me – What are you going to do with all those experiences? What do you have in mind? Where are all those promises you made? And I think that experience for me meant responsibility. Obviously, I felt proud, but I also had a big weight over my shoulders.

I had many interactions and talks with Dizzy, he transmitted to us, in so many ways, that we were not just part of a musical movement, but he also opened doors for us to connect and transform lives.

It’s not just about playing, but about getting brothers together, unifying cultures. His music had another proposal. Many things I do are based on that experience.  Seen the world together through music was one of those motivations, dreams that he had.

When I get to look back and realize that after all this time, I’m still keeping my promise, then I will be sure that I am making justice to the opportunity that was given me at the time.

E: Of course, you are already doing it. It makes me deeply proud having this conversation with you. It is as inspiring as your music. Danilo, is there anything else that you would like to add?

D: I wish I could transmit one of the biggest teachings from the school of the Maestro and mentor Wayne Shorter. He taught us the beauty of being fearless of keeping yourself in contact with the thoughts of your childhood, of being vulnerable, of learning from every opportunity, of creating opportunities, and see in every musical interaction the opportunity to grow as a human being.

This is the way. It is positive in life that you get to see how, by playing, is also possible to heal yourself, to heal humans. We, artists, must be the example that the society needs, the guardians of the creative process.

We can keep up with this fight, the battle is rough, but I think that if more artists get in touch with this process of transforming oneself through art and keep working these matters of hope and love… there is no chance to lose. The idea of ​​maintaining the concept of union, communities, the importance of the family in the face of this crisis, is more relevant than ever.

E: I completely agree.

Estefanía Romero is the founder and Chief Editor of Bop Spots, the only medium of critique and specialized jazz journalism in Mexico. She is an active member in the Organizing Committee for the Festival de Jazz Nuevo León since 2021 and holds a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Media, and a master’s degree in Communication Sciences.

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