Late one night in Panama City, at a jazz jam session at Hotel El Panama, I watch Arrocha grip his tenor sax and climb on the stage, which is bathed in purple light. He is wearing jeans, a blue button-down, and an impressive Afro. As Arrocha riffs on Joe Henderson’s “Invitation,” Perez is tapping his feet approvingly at a front table. About 10 years ago, Perez tells me, he and his wife basically adopted Arrocha, who had been eating only a few times a week.
Tonight, that kid is blowing spectacular runs, his upper body bouncing to the beat.
FROM THE EARLY DAYS of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, Perez and Pignataro have brought students to perform at Susan Bailis Assisted Living near Symphony Hall. They play concerts in the community room. The staff arranges tables like it’s a nightclub.
On one visit two or three years ago, student Hailey Niswanger, a saxophonist originally from Portland, Oregon, began playing the melody from “Misty,” a sentimental ballad popularized by Johnny Mathis in the late 1950s. There was a guy, one of the residents, watching intently from the back. It turned out he used to be a bartender in a Boston hotel. He knew this music. Something about hearing “Misty” touched him, and you could see it.
At first, Niswanger didn’t notice. She was focused on her playing. But Perez, who was nearby, did notice. He got Niswanger’s attention and motioned for her to move toward the man, to play for him, to feel what was happening.
So she did, walking out among the tables and chairs, her alto sax still on her lips, her eyes locked on this man who was hanging on her every note. “I could see that there were tears in his eyes,” Niswanger says. “And it started to put tears in my eyes.”
For Niswanger, now 23, this was something of a revelation, and it came not at the Blue Note, not at some A-list jazz festival. It came under fluorescent lights in a function room full of senior citizens. Music, she realized, isn’t about playing the perfect solo or being the top saxophonist or wowing the jazz elite. It’s about making a connection, making a difference, one person at a time.