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

The Boston Globe: April 28, 2013

The Boston GlobeThis 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

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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