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16

Danilo Perez: Bridging Cultures and Dimensions of Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: It sounds pretty cool, like you might have wanted to stay in Panama. So what made you come to the United States?

The Move to the U.S. and Boston

DP: That's a good question. It was really cool in Panama, but we did some exchanges with heavy players from other countries. Like there was a great pianist named Jorge Dalto [Argentinian pianist who was also music director for George Benson—Eds.]. He came to Panama to play with another fantastic musician, a flautist named Mauricio Smith, who became my mentor. Dalto heard me when I was only 14, and he said, "Little boy, why don't you go to New York?" And then other famous singers came to Panama, like Danny Rivera from Puerto Rico, whom I accompanied. His arrangements were very jazzy in a way, with complex voices and so forth. So he came in to rehearse, and the promoter was freaking out and told him, "This little boy is going to play piano and I do not know how did this happen!" Rivera replied: "This little pinhead is going to play piano?" [Laughter.] Then he said, "Well, let's see if he can handle the job." And when he heard me, he really liked how I worked, and he called me again and again when he was in Panama.

So, around the same time, I started to work with many people, and there was a wonderful teacher and composer, Aristides Valderrama, who came from Berklee College of Music, and he brought all these arrangements that I found fascinating. At sixteen, I was already doing everything that a professional musician could accomplish in Panama. That's when I started to think about coming to the U.S. So I applied to the USA embassy in Panama and won a Fulbright scholarship to Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I was a student for a year there. It was wonderful. I had great professors. And then I had a friend from Berklee named Jorge Carrizo, and he started telling me how great it was in Boston. So I enthusiastically applied for a scholarship at Berklee, got accepted, and that's how I came to Boston.

AAJ: So that's when you started making contact with many American musicians.

DP: I got to interact with many of my favorite mentors. One was Donald Brown, who used to play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I just talked to him recently. He was very encouraging. He was one of the first to help me set a direction for myself. In fact, he got me my first audition with the singer Jon Hendricks. So after a semester and a half I was already in New York auditioning for bands, which was one of the best experiences I had at the time. I had some great teachers at Berklee, such as Herb Pomeroy, Phil Wilson, Hal Crook, and Ed Tomassi. And I got to work with Victor Mendoza, Claudio Ragazzi, Lee Konitz, Claudio Roditi, Slide Hampton, and Clark Terry. They all were very encouraging. So it was really wonderful how I kept finding great people in my life who were very supportive. Also I got to play with many fantastic students who nowadays are part of the creative scene in the music industry.

So then I went to audition with Jon Hendricks, and got the gig. He wanted me to start right away, but I was hesitant because I was in school. But I called my friend from Panama, Mauricio Smith, who was living in Brooklyn at the time, and he said, "That's great! Everybody wants to work with Jon Hendricks! You better take it!" So I took the gig! And it turned out to be really great training for me, because I had to pick up a lot of the music by ear rather than just charts. Jon Hendricks was very particular and knew all the parts very well. He was very serious about getting to the essence of the music. That experience with him was very important in my life. I really got acquainted with American jazz, since he had Count Basie "Jumpin' at the Woodside," and those kinds of charts. Then we got started with the whole repertoire of Nat "King" Cole. And I learned many details of the music, since Hendricks wanted it set up exactly as it was on the recordings, where he wanted me to play the parts of various instruments. And then he would change the key. So I learned so much. I was only nineteen and had so much responsibility!

Influences of Thelonious Monk, Wynton Marsalis, and Wayne Shorter

AAJ: So that was your introduction to the American jazz scene. Quite a leap for a kid from Panama! One of your big influences was the music of Thelonious Monk, and you eventually made the outstanding recording, Panamonk . Many musicians do a poor imitation of Monk, but you absorbed his music into your own playing in a beautiful, seamless way. Could you explain to us what Monk means to you musically, how he influenced you? Many think of Monk as an eccentric, but we know that he was a true genius and musical pioneer who profoundly influenced many musicians. What was his particular influence on you personally?

DP: That's a great question, because Monk was really crucial in my development when I was playing with Hendricks. But even more, when I was playing with Wynton Marsalis' band, and we were doing Monk tunes, and they added a New Orleans feel to it, I started to really "get it," because in a sense New Orleans brought it closer to Panama, and I was able to hear Monk for the first time connected to the music of my own country. So I began to hear those qualities which make Monk so important, and it all began to make sense to me, the sound of America, the sound of Africa. It was almost like hearing a "rumbero." I got into accompanying tap dancers at the time, and I could hear that rhythm in the Monk tunes. So when I listened to Monk in Wynton's band, something immediately shifted for me. Monk really connected me to jazz in a completely new way.

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