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Exclusive Sunday Magazine preview | Arts in New England

Danilo Perez, world-class pianist out to change the world

This jazz giant has faith that music can contribute to humanitarian work. Now it’s up to his Berklee College students to prove it.

DANILO PEREZ has just finished a clinic for young jazz players, and it’s time for his next gig. He slips out of the auditorium, crosses a narrow street, and ducks into a rehearsal room crawling with trumpeters, guitarists, singers, and more than a half-dozen percussionists. Like nearly everyone else at January’s weeklong Panama Jazz Festival, in his native Panama City, the musicians are waiting for him, a blur in a navy button-down, black pants, and thick-frame glasses. Everybody wants a piece of Danilo.

Haggard from a punishing schedule, the renowned composer, pianist, and educator is growing sicker by the day. Tomorrow, the big band he leads will close the festival before a sea of fans on a former American military base near the Panama Canal. Then he will check into a hospital, barely able to breathe. But today they must practice.

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