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.”Continued...