Backbeat: Berklee Global Jazz Institute Students Teach, Jam With Underprivileged Youth @ Panama Jazz Fest
Backbeat: Berklee Global Jazz Institute Students Teach, Jam With Underprivileged Youth @ Panama Jazz Fest

Students from Berklee College of Music's Global Jazz Institute met some of Panama's youngest musicians on a visit to the Fundación Danilo Perez in Panama City's impoverished El Chorillo neighborhood.

"Dream about your career but leave some room in your life for these people," pianist and composer Perez told the Berklee students, who also attended clinics and performed during the Panama Jazz Festival last week (January 16-21).

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Danilo Perez (left, standing) with young Panamanian students and Berklee Global Jazz Institute musicians at the Fundación Danilo Perez. (Photo: Judy Cantor-Navas)

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Danilo Perez during a clinic at the Panama Jazz Festival. Week-long clinics taught by festival artists and faculty from Berklee and the New England Conservatory of Music. Festival workshops also included a roundtable discussion among American and Panamanian journalists (including this author). (Photo: Bill Bytsura)

Pianist Perez, who teaches at Berklee, is the founder of the jazz festival, as well as the artistic director of the Global Jazz Institute, whose goal is to develop socially responsible artists "who seek to evolve to the highest levels-as both musicians and human beings."

The music college students jammed with 11-year-old sax player Oliver Mall and other stars of the foundation, where children start playing instruments as young as three. They also toured the neighborhood, notorious for its gang violence and crumbling buildings, and met some of the families of the young players. Children educated at Perez's foundation have themselves gone on to win scholarships at Berklee and other U.S. schools.

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Oliver Wells, 11 (right), introduces Berklee students to his family in the El Chorillo neighborhood of Panama City. (Photo: Judy Cantor-Navas)

While about thirty percent of Panama's population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank, the country also has the fastest growing economy in Latin America.

"Panama has been a transitory place for a long time," Perez said. "I think business is coming to stay now, and that will have an impact on music."

One sign of this was MasterCard's sponsorship of the Panama Jazz Festival. The company offered ticket breaks for card members, and attendees who showed their MasterCard could access a branded cocktail lounge during intermission at nightly concerts by Chucho Valdes and Omara Portuondo and John Scofield, among other artists.

"Panama has great potential for growth," said Flor Carvallo, MasterCard Marketing Director for Central America. "But if there is no culture, that growth won't be sustainable."

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MasterCard Marketing Director for Central America Flor Carvallo and Panamanian sax player Carlos Garnett, known for his playing with Miles Davis, whose career was honored at the Panama Jazz Festival. (Photo: Judy Cantor-Navas)

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PC brand Acer sponsored Tito Puente Jr.'s appearance at the Panama Jazz Festival. His set was a Las Vegas-style act with a band playing his legendary father's best-known songs. (Photo: Bill Bytsura)

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A free all-day concert in the cathedral plaza of Panama City's Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage site, wrapped up the Panama Jazz Festival. (Photo: Judy Cantor-Navas)