Panama Jazz Festival – 2015

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By Garth Stiebel –

Panama is a small country, barely 3.5 million people, half of whom live in Panama City. However, revenue from the Canal exceeds $2 billion annually and this country punches well above its weight. This January, I had the opportunity to travel with JazzFM to the 12th Annual  Panama Jazz Festival, one of the premier events in the jazz world on this side of the Atlantic. JazzFM, a donor-supported radio station (91.1 on your dial) organizes several such Jazz Safaris every year all over North and South America. I’ve been on a few and highly recommend them. Our group of roughly 20 music lovers spent the first few days at a resort on the Pacific and the last few in Panama City, touring the town, eating the local fare and enjoying some of the best jazz in the world. This year, the Festival’s theme honored the contributions of saxophonist-flutist and clarinetist Eric Dolphy, who is descended from Panamanians.


The genesis of the Festival in 2003 lies with Danilo Perez, who started the Danilo Perez Foundation in 2004, in collaboration with the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, New England Conservatory, the Conservatory of Puerto Rico, Golandsky Piano Institute (based in Princeton University) and others, to bring children opportunities to hear and study music which they would not otherwise have. A main focus of the Festival is to provide musical clinics, including master classes of instruments, composition, folklore, classical music, improvisation, music therapy etc. Up until this year, the Festival subsisted entirely on private sponsorships but it was announced that government funding would be available starting in 2016, a major boost to the event and a great vote of confidence in its organizers.

Our group attended the opening  Gala on our first night in Panama City, which, much like our own Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival Gala, shows appreciation for the sponsors. It took place in a museum overlooking the Canal and it was quite a thrill to see huge container ships slowly manoevring their way through the channel with just a few feet clearance on either side. (Later on, during the trip, we would actually transit the Canal ourselves). We were treated to a variety of Latin jazz, as well as an indigenous people’s dance troupe. A couple of days later, we attended a concert featuring the Benny Golson Quartet; Benny himself has played with everyone from Count Basie, Coltrane, Miles Davis to Dizzy Gillespie and many others and is considered a jazz living legend. After the concerts, we all had the option of going to after-hours clubs for jazz jams – the Danilo Perez Club was a popular choice for many of us. Since all the musical events we were scheduled to see were at night, we explored the city during the day, when the temperatures averaged about 50 degrees warmer then Toronto at the time. Panama City is truly a first world city in a third world country, with museums, art galleries, an old town reminiscent of Havana, with 18th century Spanish architecture and great restaurants. We also had the chance to visit a native peoples’ village in the jungle.


The highlight of the trip was the closing concert at the National Theatre, an incredible example of 19th century opera house construction, lovingly restored to its original glory. Performers included Danilo Perez himself, on piano, as well as John Patitucci, Miguel Zenon, Omar Alfanno and Ruben Blades, who may be more familiar to us as an actor in Hollywood movies but is an iconic native son in Panama, who sings in the style of Frank Sinatra, smooth as silk.


The night before we left, we were taken to an off-the-beaten-path restaurant, had the most incredible meal and were treated to an impromptu concert by Jane Bunnett, on clarinet and her husband, Larry Kramer on trumpet, to the best version of Besseme I’ve ever heard. Next morning, we headed home, with great memories and new friends.