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.
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.
“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.”
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.”Continued...