A Man, a Plan, a Canal: Panama Celebrates Jazz

A Man, a Plan, a Canal
Panama Celebrates Jazz

by Larry Blumenfeld

copyright © 2006 Larry Blumenfeld

Reprinted with permission from The Wall Street Journal

Panama City, Panama — If a single image of American music intermingling with Panamanian life prevailed in the past, it was this: The spectacle of U.S. troops blasting Van Halen and Metallica songs at deafeningly high decibels into Panama City's Vatican Embassy in 1989, where dictator Manuel Noriega had fled prior to his capture.

That now seems a distant and irrelevant memory, replaced with a glorious gathering of American and Panamanian musicians improvising upon cross-cultural themes at the third annual Panama Jazz Festival, a three-day affair in Panama City that ended January 21 with a daylong free outdoor concert. The festival reaffirmed a connection between American and Panamanian musical legacies that, though enduring, is not always immediately apparent.

A stork walked gingerly through the lobby of the Palacio de las Garzas in Panama City's historic Casco Viejo district on the morning of the festival's opening. Upstairs in a drawing room, President Martin Torrijos welcomed the musicians — pianist Randy Weston and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, among other Americans, as well as Panamanians who'd made names for themselves in the U.S. but returned to live in Panama, such as saxophonist Carlos Garnett and trumpeter Victor "Vittin" Paz. Looking on, smiling broadly, were Danilo Pérez, the Panamanian-born pianist who created the festival, and Rubén Blades, the salsa singer and film star who is now the country's minister of tourism.

"The spirit of jazz has always been here," said Pérez, "but it's been sleeping for years." Born and raised in Panama City, Pérez arrived in the U.S. in 1982, as a teenager. After studying at Boston's Berklee College of Music, he gained early notice playing with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and, more recently, as a bandleader and member of saxophonist Wayne Shorter's quartet. Pérez has consistently mined his Panamanian roots through his music. His 1996 CD, PanaMonk, set Thelonious Monk tunes to Panamanian rhythms; 2000's Motherland incorporated folk rhythms and indigenous drums. Now, at 40, Pérez acknowledges his homeland in a more practical manner — reawakening its jazz community and promoting its culture as part of a larger campaign to energize tourism and investment in Panama.

Blades said that the number of tourists in Panama had more than doubled during the past decade, totaling more than one million visitors in the past year. He spoke wistfully about the once-vibrant Panamanian jazz scene that he experienced as a young singer. "There was a community here built around that music," he said. "And it's starting to come back. It's important — not just for tourism, but for this country's self-esteem."

Pérez, whose parents are educators and who is a teacher himself (at Berklee College and the New England Conservatory of Music), made education a prominent element of his festival. Through four days, Panamanian musicians studied with their American counterparts and with festival headliners. They soaked up technical training and career advice, not to mention context.

At one University of Panama classroom, the walls were lined with pictures of American jazz icons such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington alongside those of Panamanian counterparts: Luis Russell, a pianist and bandleader who played with Armstrong; pianist Victor Boa, known as "the Art Tatum of Panama"; and flutist Mauricio Smith, to whom this year's festival was dedicated.

While leading a clinic, Weston spoke about the common African roots of Panamanian and American jazz and demonstrated how African musical elements figure into his piano technique. Afterward, Weston headed off to research his personal legacy at the national archives; his father was born and raised not far from the Canal Zone.

Of course, a jazz festival is first and foremost about musical performances. Two nights of concerts at the cavernous Teatro Anayansi featured artists who ranged in age from an impressive eight-year-old percussionist Milagros Blades, to Weston, who is 80, and varied as widely in styles. There were several highlights: Garnett's mixture of tender balladry and searing solos; a touching duet between flutist Mauricio Smith Jr. and his half-brother, bassist Marcelino Thompson; a demonstration of folkloric Panamanian songs and rhythms led by percussionist and anthropologist Ricaurte Villarreal; and a wonderfully hypnotic set by Weston's trio marked by the unorthodox technique of bassist Alex Blake, who, it turns out, was born in Panama.

The music spilled out into the night, through jam sessions at the Intercontinental Miramar Hotel's Sparkle Bar, overlooking the Pacific Ocean: There, holding court among the New England Conservatory band members and local musicians were two impressive female saxophonists from Chile: Patricia Zarate, Pérez's wife, and Melissa Aldana, a 17-year-old whose tone and confidence belied her age.

For the closing-day outdoor concert, a scaffolded stage obscured all but the mother-of-pearl encrusted towers of the 18th-century cathedral in Casco Viejo's Plaza de la Independencia, where Panama declared its sovereignty in 1903. The New England Conservatory ensemble and a quartet led by Puerto Rican American saxophonist David Sanchez drew especially warm responses from the crowd, which, by nightfall, had grown to 6,000. A "murga," or carnival parade, worked its way through the audience, sounding much like a New Orleans second line. Weston invited Garnett to join his band for a set, their first-ever collaboration. Trumpeter Victor Paz floated sweet-toned notes over the plaza as he led a big band drawn from the University of Panama and a trio of singers that included Pérez's father.

Finally, Pérez, who had forsaken performing in this year's event to focus on administration, took the stage. Seated at a piano, he led the ensemble through "Panama Suite," a piece he'd composed for a 2005 festival at Chicago's Millennium Park. The music was, by turns, celebratory and brooding, full of knotty harmonies and catchy riffs, with space cleared for several extended solos. Ingeniously woven through the composition was the melody of a Panamanian folk song, often sung during festivals and celebrations of saints. At its climax, Pérez invited the crowd to sing along. "Quiero amanecer, quiero amanecer," they repeated, meaning roughly, "I want to see the sunrise."

With the third annual Panama Jazz Festival, Pérez created a celebration worthy of staying up late — and helped usher in a new day for his native country.

Larry Blumenfeld is an editor-at-large for Jazziz magazine and writes on jazz for The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice.

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