It took some initial salesmanship on Berklee’s part, but Perez agreed to lead the new institute, hoping to build on his creative and humanitarian work. College leaders gave him freedom to follow his vision. Perez insisted it focus on jazz, which he calls humanity’s universal, eternal language. “Jazz,” he is fond of saying, “is a cultural passport,” difficult to confine but easy to share.
They settled on the name Berklee Global Jazz Institute after some haggling with trustees. (Should “Berklee” even be in the name? What, exactly, does “global jazz” mean?) Over the next two years, often in the Wollaston living room of Matt Marvuglio, a jazz flutist and dean of Berklee’s Professional Performance Division, he and Perez began building it. Perez became artistic director and Marco Pignataro, an Italian saxophonist who had directed the jazz program at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico, was brought in as managing director. The Berklee Global Jazz Institute, or the BGJI, as it’s known, welcomed its first class of students in the spring of 2010.
Perez lives by the conviction that musicians should be more than skilled players, that they should use their talent for social good. This became the program’s credo: Students would learn to play with the best but also to play with a mission. Their ultimate journeys might differ — some may go on to teach impoverished children, others to pursue environmental activism — yet they would all understand that music should be more than mere entertainment. “He’s not the only one, but he’s made a very powerful case for it — as powerful as anyone,” says Ken Schaphorst, chairman of New England Conservatory’s Jazz Studies and Improvisation Department.
In a bold experiment, Perez and Pignataro began evaluating applicants based not just on technical proficiency — the traditional currency at Berklee — but also with more subjective yardsticks, assessing their generosity of spirit, curiosity about the world, and desire to look beyond themselves. “It felt like the right thing to do in my heart,” Perez says. “A place where we incubate creativity but also connect to the social change of music, to the power of music.”
That may sound starry-eyed, but it’s all Danilo Perez has ever known.
RHYTHM WAS the language of his youth. Perez’s father, Danilo Enrico Perez Urriola, put syllables to cadence in teaching him to speak: Como estas became co-mo-estas, three beats. It was a technique the father had learned in the classroom as an elementary and middle school teacher: His lessons worked better when put to song.
At home, Danilo Perez Sr., a well-known singer in Panama, belted out mambos, boleros, and Cuban styles. Household objects doubled as percussion instruments. If you were in the house, you played, too.
But Perez picked up another strong influence at home. His mother, Elizabeth, also a teacher, was active in the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party. Justice, equality, and political participation were dinner-table topics. “He saw that since he was little,” Perez Sr. says.
The family for years could not afford a piano, so Perez initially practiced on a toy keyboard. Around age 8 he moved up to a rotted spinet with one functional octave. By 10, he was studying classical piano at Panama’s National Conservatory; at 12, he was playing clubs with his father. “He treated those little concerts like it was Madison Square Garden,” says William Duguid, a Panamanian performer who goes by Willie Panama.
Music was supposed to be a hobby, though. Not a vocation. His family expected him to follow after his father: have a career, play music on the side. So he studied electronics. He won a Fulbright to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, arriving in the States as a teenager.
His heart soon began to wander. Before long, Perez asked about the school’s music department. Another pianist then urged him to apply to Berklee. He won a scholarship and announced he was moving to Boston. His mother, believing the music world to be inhabited by impoverished alcoholics, was beside herself. “See, you don’t know what you’re doing,” she said, starting to cry. “Mommy, no,” Perez replied, “this is good for me.”
Berklee was a shock. “Until that point, I was always the youngest, always the most talented kid,” he says. “I came here and I met all the cats that were serious. There was a lot of talent. And I had doubts for the first time in my life. ‘Did I choose the right thing?’ ”
He soon made his place, finding mentors and broadening his repertoire beyond the music he’d known in Panama, where Cuban, Caribbean, and folk influences converged. He began scoring high-profile gigs, and his creativity kept opening doors. In the late 1980s, just as he was about to finish his Berklee degree, he won a spot with Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nation Orchestra and never looked back.Continued...