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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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The band begins rehearsing a Perez composition, Patria, or Homeland, written as a tribute to his country. The horns and drums build, but he waves them off. “The feeling is not there,” he says. He needs the ensemble to evoke, with its tones and rhythms, Spain’s colonization of Panama.

They start anew. Again, he stops the song. The music — too flat, too cold — dies. “This is important!” he says, pleading for more drama, more emotion. “You guys didn’t watch movies, man?”

The rehearsal goes on like this, with Perez standing over an electric piano, a gold cross dangling from his neck, frustration growing with each bloodless start. It’s not their musicianship he questions. He’s after something less tangible. “You know how to play correctly? That doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “That’s like when a machine washes clothes correctly.”

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Finally, Perez hears what he wants. A more fluid, more resonant rendition of Patria fills the room. He asks them: Who didn’t feel the difference? “If you didn’t, there’s the door,” he says. “You can get out of here.” No one dares move. “This is what we do,” he says. “Puedes. Puedes.” (“You can. You can.”)

The next night, the audience is thousands deep under a gorgeous Central American sky. The sun sets, the air cools. The big band, about 30 strong, sets up under the lights. “Viva Panama!” Perez shouts into a microphone. “Viva!” the crowd roars back. The band launches into Patria.

And just like that, in front of all these people, Perez does it again: He cuts it off. The rhythm doesn’t sound right. He instructs the band to make random noise, to disguise the awkward silence. Then he starts the whole thing over.

Perez, who is 47, is revered enough in Panama that he could read takeout menus and still draw an ovation. But there is something striking, on this night, about his demand for a do-over on the big stage. In Perez’s world, as anyone who has played with or studied under him can attest, traditional rules and boundaries rarely apply. For him, jazz is at once all about the music and not about the music at all.

***

A FEW YEARS BACK, Roger Brown and Larry Simpson, respectively the president and provost of Berklee College of Music, began planning a new institute devoted to improvisation. Berklee, with more than 4,000 students, already offered many paths for the up-and-coming. Yet Brown and Simpson wanted to enhance the school’s position as arguably the country’s premier institution for contemporary music training.

They found a willing benefactor in Berklee trustee John Connaughton, a Bain Capital executive, amateur guitarist, and longtime music lover. So Brown and Simpson had the kernel of an idea, and now they had the money. All they needed was the right leader.

It quickly became clear who that was: Danilo Perez, a world-class pianist who had been teaching at Berklee and the prestigious New England Conservatory. His jazz chops were widely acknowledged — lots of recognition from the Grammys, a pile of critically acclaimed albums, ensembles with legends Dizzy Gillespie and Wayne Shorter. But it was Perez’s work as an educator, particularly his devotion to mentoring young musicians in Panama, that made him the natural choice to define and lead the new program.

For more than 25 years, Perez has used music to impart lessons on craft, discipline, responsibility, and beauty. In 2003, he founded the Panama Jazz Festival, which has become a major draw for fans and aspiring musicians across Latin America, who crowd into concerts, workshops, and auditions for coveted scholarships to Berklee and other conservatories.

Two years later, Perez started the Fundacion Danilo Perez in Panama City, where several hundred children ages 8 to 14, including many from drug- and crime-infested areas, receive an education in much more than just music. The nonprofit, in a former conservatory building, operates as a haven from the streets, full of instruments, books, and role models who teach principles like respect and honesty alongside rhythm and music theory. In 2012, he was named a UNESCO Artist for Peace. When Peruvian singer Susana Baca, ending her set at this year’s festival, called Perez “a saint of Panama,” no one thought it hyperbole.

It took some initial salesmanship on Berklee’s part, but Perez agreed to lead the new institute, hoping to build on his creative and humanitarian work. College leaders gave him freedom to follow his vision. Perez insisted it focus on jazz, which he calls humanity’s universal, eternal language. “Jazz,” he is fond of saying, “is a cultural passport,” difficult to confine but easy to share.

They settled on the name Berklee Global Jazz Institute after some haggling with trustees. (Should “Berklee” even be in the name? What, exactly, does “global jazz” mean?) Over the next two years, often in the Wollaston living room of Matt Marvuglio, a jazz flutist and dean of Berklee’s Professional Performance Division, he and Perez began building it. Perez became artistic director and Marco Pignataro, an Italian saxophonist who had directed the jazz program at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico, was brought in as managing director. The Berklee Global Jazz Institute, or the BGJI, as it’s known, welcomed its first class of students in the spring of 2010.

Perez lives by the conviction that musicians should be more than skilled players, that they should use their talent for social good. This became the program’s credo: Students would learn to play with the best but also to play with a mission. Their ultimate journeys might differ — some may go on to teach impoverished children, others to pursue environmental activism — yet they would all understand that music should be more than mere entertainment. “He’s not the only one, but he’s made a very powerful case for it — as powerful as anyone,” says Ken Schaphorst, chairman of New England Conservatory’s Jazz Studies and Improvisation Department.

In a bold experiment, Perez and Pignataro began evaluating applicants based not just on technical proficiency — the traditional currency at Berklee — but also with more subjective yardsticks, assessing their generosity of spirit, curiosity about the world, and desire to look beyond themselves. “It felt like the right thing to do in my heart,” Perez says. “A place where we incubate creativity but also connect to the social change of music, to the power of music.”

That may sound starry-eyed, but it’s all Danilo Perez has ever known.

***

Ion sokhos

At the keyboard Perez is an electric, inventive pianist, fluent in many jazz dialects.

RHYTHM WAS the language of his youth. Perez’s father, Danilo Enrico Perez Urriola, put syllables to cadence in teaching him to speak: Como estas became co-mo-estas, three beats. It was a technique the father had learned in the classroom as an elementary and middle school teacher: His lessons worked better when put to song.

At home, Danilo Perez Sr., a well-known singer in Panama, belted out mambos, boleros, and Cuban styles. Household objects doubled as percussion instruments. If you were in the house, you played, too.

But Perez picked up another strong influence at home. His mother, Elizabeth, also a teacher, was active in the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party. Justice, equality, and political participation were dinner-table topics. “He saw that since he was little,” Perez Sr. says.

The family for years could not afford a piano, so Perez initially practiced on a toy keyboard. Around age 8 he moved up to a rotted spinet with one functional octave. By 10, he was studying classical piano at Panama’s National Conservatory; at 12, he was playing clubs with his father. “He treated those little concerts like it was Madison Square Garden,” says William Duguid, a Panamanian performer who goes by Willie Panama.

Music was supposed to be a hobby, though. Not a vocation. His family expected him to follow after his father: have a career, play music on the side. So he studied electronics. He won a Fulbright to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, arriving in the States as a teenager.

His heart soon began to wander. Before long, Perez asked about the school’s music department. Another pianist then urged him to apply to Berklee. He won a scholarship and announced he was moving to Boston. His mother, believing the music world to be inhabited by impoverished alcoholics, was beside herself. “See, you don’t know what you’re doing,” she said, starting to cry. “Mommy, no,” Perez replied, “this is good for me.”

Berklee was a shock. “Until that point, I was always the youngest, always the most talented kid,” he says. “I came here and I met all the cats that were serious. There was a lot of talent. And I had doubts for the first time in my life. ‘Did I choose the right thing?’ ”

He soon made his place, finding mentors and broadening his repertoire beyond the music he’d known in Panama, where Cuban, Caribbean, and folk influences converged. He began scoring high-profile gigs, and his creativity kept opening doors. In the late 1980s, just as he was about to finish his Berklee degree, he won a spot with Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nation Orchestra and never looked back.

At the keyboard, Perez is an electric, inventive pianist, fluent in many jazz dialects. His compositions, layered with competing rhythms and intricacies, reflect his Panamanian heritage but often surprise. When he’s moved by a riff from another member of his ensemble, he lets out a “Whoooooaaa!”

Offstage, he is magnetic and warm, speaking like he plays, bouncing between Spanish and English, his voice full of inflection. His husky laugh seems to carry for miles. If you’re within reach, chances are he will touch you — wrap you in a bear hug, poke your chest, or drape his arm around your shoulders.

A father figure to many from Boston to Panama, Perez has three young children of his own with his wife, Patricia Zarate, a Chilean saxophone player and music therapist who runs the Panama Jazz Festival and helps manage his other projects. (His new record, Panama 500, is due out in September.) They home-school their children in Quincy, with Perez picking up where his father left off.

Ion sokhos

Perez in his Berklee classroom.

One Tuesday evening earlier this semester, I watched one of his Berklee workshops. Perez implored students to see jazz as their language, to play who they are. He mimicked an old man sauntering down a city sidewalk, likening his gait to an easy piano run that slowly trails off. Cuban music, he said, sounds like rat-a-tat Spanish dialogue, Brazilian samba like a pot simmering on the stove. At one point he locked arms with a student and pretended to walk with him to a nearby cafe. “Hey man, you gonna have a sandwich?” he said. “You just get your instrument and play that.” He had students sing solos using their names, what they had for breakfast, where they’re from, what they’re reading. “Make everything you do have the same purpose,” he said. “That’s the homework.”

Two moments earlier in Perez’s life — one big, one small — opened his eyes to music’s power. First, the small: Once, when Perez was a boy, a repairman came to fix the family washing machine. It took him the whole day. When he finished, Danilo Perez Sr., who had been playing music with his son, handed the repairman a carrot shredder and a fork and invited him to join in. The guy began doing a little rhythm, chick-a-chick, chick-a-chick, and stayed to play for a half-hour.

Ion sokhos

Perez had students sing solos using their names, what they had for breakfast, where they’re from, what they’re reading.

“OK,” Danilo’s father finally said. “How much is the fix?”

“I can’t charge you,” the repairman replied. “What you just gave, I never felt this in my life.”

Perez Sr. turned to his son: “You see what music does to people?”

Years later, in December 1989, the United States invaded Panama to oust dictator Manuel Noriega. Many Panamanians were killed, the streets of the capital city a war zone. Amid the chaos, Perez, driven partly by a sense of youthful invincibility, threw a concert in a Panama City club, leading a jazz trio with guests. The show was broadcast on national radio. “It seemed like something very obvious to me — that people needed some kind of hope,” he says. He remembers people of divergent political views in the audience. Some had relatives who were missing. Yet there were no fights, no troubles. “The music,” he says, “was the glue.”

Ion sokhos

Perez playing in his Berklee classroom.

***

THE DAY AFTER December’s school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, my wife and I had tickets to see Under the Covers, an annual concert where Boston-area singer-songwriters and musicians play a night of cover songs. The show is meant to be festive, but it was hard to shake the tragedy. We listened in numbness.

Deep into the set, Jake Armerding, one of the performers, acknowledged as much. At difficult times, he said, it was important to come together and celebrate what we love. On this night, music was that thing. Seen this way, the show hardly felt frivolous. Quite the opposite. It was just the balm we needed. They closed with “The Only Way,” a song that another performer onstage, Mark Erelli, had written after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. The chorus nails it:

So I’m gonna love

I’m gonna believe

I’m gonna dream

But I’m gonna roll up my sleeve

And give everything until there’s nothing left to give

That’s the only way that I know how to live.

Music by itself isn’t going to feed or clothe; it won’t banish injustice or heal a broken family. But it has always been an emotional catalyst — in weddings and funerals, during the civil rights movement, at political rallies. It moves and incites and reassures and summons memories. It bridges differences like nothing else can. Bruce Springsteen explained it this way to David Remnick of the The New Yorker: “We hope to send people out of the building we play in with a slightly more enhanced sense of what their options might be, emotionally, maybe communally. You empower them a little bit, they empower you. It’s all a battle against the futility and the existential loneliness! It may be that we are all huddled together around the fire and trying to fight off that sense of the inevitable. That’s what we do for one another.”

It’s this spirit that animates the Berklee Global Jazz Institute. Plenty of other Berklee students and teachers possessed a similar sensibility, but the program sought to formalize it. “The idea that we are in a community, and we are connected and we can make life richer for each other — these aren’t just altruistic dreams,” says John Patitucci, an acclaimed bassist who plays with Perez and teaches at the institute. “They can be real. It just depends on how hard you want to work.”

The institute currently has 13 students in its core program and another 17 or so in a preparatory level. With rare exceptions, students must already be at Berklee before applying. Those who get in spend two to four semesters immersed in Perez’s worldview. They get intimate training from masters such as Patitucci, saxophonist Joe Lovano, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who have embraced a sense of collaboration and mentorship that hasn’t always existed in jazz. “In previous generations in music, a lot of cats, they didn’t want you to know anything,” Lovano says. “They put their arms around their horn and said, ‘Man, don’t look at me so close.’ We’re in another era.”

Off campus, the learning can be even more rewarding. BGJI students play jazz festivals around the world. They visit the Panamanian jungle to understand ecological sensitivity. They play at nursing homes and hospitals. They’ve performed several times at Bridgewater State Hospital, once even putting lyrics written by inmates and patients to music and then playing the songs live. “It was a really big hit,” says Pamm MacEachern, a Bridgewater deputy superintendent. “A lot of smiles on that particular day.”

In late February, Perez and Marco Pignataro led a group of students to Benin and Togo to teach and perform. Caili O’Doherty, a 21-year-old pianist from Portland, Oregon, says the African trip was transformational, giving them a new perspective on music, inspiration, poverty, and their own privileges. “It gives us a whole different outlook on life and why we play music,” she says.

After they played a set at the jazz festival in Panama, I had asked O’Doherty and other BGJI students how much good musical diplomacy can really do. What use is music instruction, I asked, for a child in a foreign slum who will never make it to Berklee? They cited the story of one Panamanian boy recruited by gangs, whom Perez’s foundation helped save. Music, O’Doherty said, is a big, constructive force, and the lessons translate. “It gives them a sense of purpose,” she told me. “Something they can own.”

The institute, which puts on its third annual jazz summit Monday night at the Berklee Performance Center, continues to evolve. In 2014, Pignataro says, the BGJI will become a hybrid master’s/undergraduate program. They’ve begun student and faculty exchanges with international conservatories. They’ve admitted several students whose instruments — fiddle, harmonica, hand percussion — don’t fit neatly into conventional jazz ensembles. “It’s been an amazing thing, and it just grew very quickly,” Matt Marvuglio says.

Along the way, the BGJI has both inspired and confounded, appealing to some Berklee students, faculty, and donors while mystifying others, including student jazz virtuosos frustrated at not having been accepted. “There are people who respond to what Danilo’s about and there are people who don’t. And that’s totally cool,” Roger Brown says. “It’s not like we’re recruiting for our NCAA basketball team and we just want to win games. We’re trying to put together a group of people who share a certain set of ideas and commitments, and that’s not for everybody.”

The goal is that O’Doherty and the other students become cultural ambassadors and mentors themselves. Their impact is hard to measure yet, but Perez’s influence is clear: Pianist Christian Li organized a concert to raise money for Chile’s recovery from a devastating earthquake. Saxophonist Tom Wilson spent a summer volunteering at the Panama foundation. Percussionist Sergio Martinez gives lessons over Skype to Panamanian kids. O’Doherty plans to move to New York to teach as well as perform. One day she hopes to establish her own program for children in need.

Then there’s Jahaziel Arrocha, a saxophonist who, with Perez’s help, came to Berklee from a very poor region of Panama. Degree in hand, he’s back home now, helping to run the foundation. With so many bad examples for children in the barrio, says Arrocha, 24, music is a lifeline. “They come to me, I like to give them the best I can.”

Late one night in Panama City, at a jazz jam session at Hotel El Panama, I watch Arrocha grip his tenor sax and climb on the stage, which is bathed in purple light. He is wearing jeans, a blue button-down, and an impressive Afro. As Arrocha riffs on Joe Henderson’s “Invitation,” Perez is tapping his feet approvingly at a front table. About 10 years ago, Perez tells me, he and his wife basically adopted Arrocha, who had been eating only a few times a week.

Tonight, that kid is blowing spectacular runs, his upper body bouncing to the beat.

***

FROM THE EARLY DAYS of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, Perez and Pignataro have brought students to perform at Susan Bailis Assisted Living near Symphony Hall. They play concerts in the community room. The staff arranges tables like it’s a nightclub.

On one visit two or three years ago, student Hailey Niswanger, a saxophonist originally from Portland, Oregon, began playing the melody from “Misty,” a sentimental ballad popularized by Johnny Mathis in the late 1950s. There was a guy, one of the residents, watching intently from the back. It turned out he used to be a bartender in a Boston hotel. He knew this music. Something about hearing “Misty” touched him, and you could see it.

At first, Niswanger didn’t notice. She was focused on her playing. But Perez, who was nearby, did notice. He got Niswanger’s attention and motioned for her to move toward the man, to play for him, to feel what was happening.

So she did, walking out among the tables and chairs, her alto sax still on her lips, her eyes locked on this man who was hanging on her every note. “I could see that there were tears in his eyes,” Niswanger says. “And it started to put tears in my eyes.”

For Niswanger, now 23, this was something of a revelation, and it came not at the Blue Note, not at some A-list jazz festival. It came under fluorescent lights in a function room full of senior citizens. Music, she realized, isn’t about playing the perfect solo or being the top saxophonist or wowing the jazz elite. It’s about making a connection, making a difference, one person at a time.

VIDEO: Go behind the scenes of this year’s Panama Jazz Festival with Scott Helman.

Scott Helman is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at shelman@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @swhelman.

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