For Danilo Pérez, jazz is the world’s best form of therapy

Danilo Pérez believes that jazz is one of the best tools of international diplomacy.

The Panamanian pianist and composer puts that belief into practice. In addition to his game-changing career in which he’s played with artists including Dizzy Gillespie and a long relationship with Wayne Shorter, Pérez also serves as UNESCO’s artist for peace, the cultural ambassador to the Republic of Panama, founder of the Panama Jazz Festival and founder and artistic director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute.

Pérez recently visited Toronto for two nights of performances at Koerner Hall, presented by The Royal Conservatory. While in town, he dropped by the JAZZ.FM91 studios for a conversation about the global reach of jazz, and how music is a powerful antidote to the ills of society.

You grew up playing at a very high level as a young person, you came to the U.S. to study music, but I get the sense that it’s when you joined Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra in 1989 when things really opened up.

Absolutely. One of the [main] things that I learned from being with Dizzy was that jazz was the best tool for diplomacy. You know, Dizzy Gillespie’s intention for us to learn was that we could use music to unite the world. I really learned the power of intercultural dialogue at that moment. Beside all the great lessons I learned, that was one of the things that I took from my mentor, Dizzy Gillespie.

He would ask you questions to which he would want not musical answers, but answers about yourself. 

He would say to me, “Who are you? Where do you come from?” He said, “That’s what I want to hear in your music.” He really made a strong case for me to go back to my inner dreams, being in Panama and watching all the world go through the canal. I remember wanting to make music that felt that way — that we embrace the world and that we can come together. With Dizzy Gillespie, I reconnected with that.

The Berklee Global Jazz Institute is about those things too, right? It’s about bringing musicians from all over and not saying “play jazz,” but to bring their experience and culture to jazz — not bury it, but put it on top and utilize it?

I think that’s one of the ways that you give oxygen to the word “jazz”: to have a global perspective of how jazz functions. At the core, jazz provides values that are so important: democracy, community work, listening, negotiation. That’s part of what jazz is about. And we have an institute where we can welcome all these nationalities in the world and work out our differences through music — a non-threatening tool — and come out with an organic platform to influence politicians, to influence how the world should work, through music.

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There is something you had said recently, and I’m hanging onto it. You said, “Art is becoming central to the re-direction of humanity, a way to put a brake on all the negativity. Music … has the potential of lighting up humanity. It’s amazing how music can provide hope for youth, optimism for change, and dreams of a better future.” I want to believe this, Danilo.

Believe me. I just came back from Panama, a country that has a long, long history with jazz. One of the things I got from producing with my wife the Panama Jazz Festival for 17 years was that the youth took [over] the festival. Global jazz is speaking to young people. And that is the best gift we can give humanity — to really give the young generation an opportunity to practise music that brings the art of listening, and the art of community, and the art of building dreams together. And that’s why jazz is so important.

Have you always had this optimism, or have you had to sort of manufacture more optimism in the face of the nonsense that’s going on in the world right now?

The ancient power of music in society should be healing. It should be therapy. This is what I get from playing music. It’s an out-of-body experience. Just to feel that gives me the energy, the hope and the optimistic behaviour I need to hang on in the world. If we let music do the therapy, I think we get what we need. It’s helpful to the brain, to concentration, to the prevention of many things. If we support the music, the culture, the art, if we do that, we have an opportunity to create an antidote against all this negativity. That’s what we do. We are the shamans and the healers of society.