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The 2006 Panama Jazz Festival

Mark Sabbatini By

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Most festivals, especially new ones, make maximum use of their big-name talent to lure crowds. But for Danilo Perez. this year's test for his labor of love was standing it on its own two legs.

The Panama native and favorite son scarcely played a note during the third annual Panama Jazz Festival from Feb. 19-21, in contrast to his full-length concerts many considered the highlight of the first two years. The pianist and founder of the festival appeared for less than 30 minutes during an all-star big band finale where the biggest contributions came from other players, save that he wrote the featured composition.

Perez, now living in Boston, has spent years trying to revive a jazz identity in a country pulled in so many directions by outside cultural influences that its past is largely undocumented. There's also the stigma of notable political issues that have given the country a negative image in much of the world. But with a cultural identity now showing signs of development, Perez said he wants audiences appreciating other established musicians and a growing roster of in-country talent.

"I don't want them focusing on me," he said.

Not that Perez was idle or lacking his usual idol status. From introducing all the performers to making sure everyone was comfortable backstage, he was a non-stop hands-on presence in and out of public view throughout. His name was invariably the first mentioned by Panama residents asked about their favorite jazz musicians and the applause anytime he appeared was hearty.

Listeners finding their attention directed elsewhere heard mostly solid shows and a few exceptional ones at a festival that, if not yet ready to directly compete with the major league Latin festivals, seems to emphasize quality over commercial popularity.

Highlights ranged from a children's traditional Panamanian folk ensemble to 78-year-old pianist Randy Weston's African Rhythms groups. Other notable foreigners included guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and saxophonist David Sanchez, plus ensembles from the New England Conservatory and University of Massachusetts (the Boston-Perez connection obviously at work, with one newspaper suggesting the festival is a recruiting tool for Panamanian and South America music students). Major Panamanian billings included saxophonist Carlos Garnett, legendary trumpeter Victor "Vitin" Paz and a tribute to the equally esteemed Mauricio Smith featuring the son of the late flautist. For the sturdy, perhaps the purest moments came during crowded performances and jam sessions at usually starting after midnight at a couple of clubs.

For some foreigners, it was a chance to reestablish Panamanian connections. Weston, who's father was born in the country in 1896, spent time researching his family tree. His bassist, Alex Blake, was born in Panama and was making his first trip home since the age of 7.

Seats at the Teatro Anayansi the first two nights were perhaps one-third and one-half full, respectively, a decline from an estimated three-quarters capacity crowd attending a concert at the inaugural festival featuring Perez. But a day-long series of outdoor concerts in the Plaza Catedral featuring most of the festival artists appeared to attract higher numbers than previous years. Rough estimates of total festival attendance by officials are 2,000 for the first year, 4,000 last year and 6,000 this year.

The biggest difference from previous years was the increased presence of young musicians in the performances and a series of university workshops, according to several festival organizers and observers. For them, it's one of the most encouraging signs of success for an event with lofty goals such as increasing the struggling tourism industry and instilling a national cultural identity.

"I have seen the self esteem of the young musicians increase because they're getting the confidence to participate," Perez said. "That's a major, major advance."

A festival matching the prominence of Montreal or Montreaux is years away, but strong government support, increasing sponsorships and a willingness by established musicians such as Wayne Shorter to commit to future years for sometimes less-than-usual pay have supporters saying it's possible.

"This has the potential to be the most important festival in Latin America," said Robin Tomchin, Perez's manager and international coordinator of the festival.

The New Face Of Panama

Despite a deep and diverse history, Panama is still about a canal and a dictator for most Americans.

Historical indignities such as being conquered by various countries over the centuries and having the U.S. control its primary economic asset - the canal - for most of the past 100 years didn't do much for the national pride. It's musical history is potentially as historic as New Orleans, but there's virtually no record or recordings of those contributions.


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