Panama Jazz Festival: inspiring, educating, and changing lives through music


For 18 years, the Panama Jazz Festival (PJF), one of the most important cultural event in our country, has been held every January.  Despite the pandemic, 2021 could not be the exception; on the contrary, the festival has big plans: this year, the PJF will be longer, more international, and, thanks to virtuality, it will be able to reach a wider audience.

Throughout its history, the PJF has offered an extensive concert program with the world’s leading jazz musicians such as The Wayne Shorter Quartet, Herbie Hancock, the Chucho Valdés Quartet, John Patitucci, and Rubén Blades, among many others. Perhaps this was the most visible part of the event.

However, its ultimate goal is to inspire, educate, and provide tools and opportunities to build a better future for people and their communities. This happens especially through its Clinic Week: training and meeting spaces between international artists and local students. Some of the best higher music education institutions participate, including Berklee College of Music, the New England Conservatory of Music, the Golandsky Piano Institute, and the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music. This activity has also become a space for admission auditions and training grants at participating schools.

To get a closer look at the Festival’s music clinics, we talked with teachers, collaborators, and students who have experienced this space “from within” and from different perspectives.

What makes the music clinics so special?

For Nicole Dillman, one of the coordinators of the clinics’ activities, these spaces are what makes the PJF unique: “there are no other large educational events in the region that can bring in more teachers and students from premier music colleges, such as de PJF. Besides, it offers students every year the opportunity to audition for major schools, including scholarships to study abroad and the opportunity to meet and play with musicians of the highest level,” she says.

Samuel Batista, a professor at the PJF’s music clinics, agrees with Dillman.  Batista points out that the most important thing about the event is the level of exposure to educational opportunities, cultural exchanges, and human development.

For Carlos Agrazal, Panamanian artist and also a music clinic teacher, the educational events of the Panama Jazz Festival are unique: “to be in a place where you can learn and have a first-class experience with the world’s most prestigious artists, music schools; to share and meet many people who, like you, are studying, can change your life change in a second.”

How does the Festival change the lives of its participants?

Both Carlos, Samuel, and Nicole emphasize that the festival changed their lives thanks to the fact that they could study outside of Panama, which allowed them to grow personally and professionally.

Samuel has been collaborating with the festival for 15 years from multiple roles “it has given me the experience of meeting students and professionals from all over the world. All gathered in Panama show that we are in a fertile land for talent. Thanks to the PJF, I finished my university studies, and today I can share the wonders of music with boys and girls from 3 years old onwards. The experience is priceless.”

Samuel Batista

“My life has changed greatly, from playing at processions and ‘murgas’ in Penonomé to traveling represent my country in festivals around the world, studying at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music, having the sponsorship of a renowned brand of saxophones,” says Carlos. “It has allowed me to fulfill part of my dreams with music that at one time I thought would never come true; to help my family, to become an educator and currently Coordinator of the Educational Programs at the Danilo Perez Foundation, ” he points out.

For Eric García, Sofía Hernández, and Harold Williams, all students, the Panama Jazz Festival has transformed their lives, making them revolve around music,“ by participating in the music clinics, I have realized what I really want in life, and I have found my true passion: music, ” they conclude.

Why do you think the Festival owes its success to?

All three students agree that the Festival’s success lies mainly in two points: first, the teamwork of all those who are part of it and manage to create a family atmosphere. On the other hand, the cultural exchange resulting from the attendance of people from multiple countries. “People with different styles of music and life attend, new ideas emerge from all that exchange of culture, theories, forms, among other things, that gives life to Panama Jazz,” says Eric.

Nicole, for her part, points out Danilo’s style: “during the Festival week, he is seen everywhere, in press conferences, in rehearsals, in music clinics, hosting international artists… but Danilo will always have a moment and a smile for you. He is an example of talent, effort, dedication, love of art, love of Panama.”

How do you assess the challenge of having an online edition in 2021?

For Nicole, this online edition “allows us to have a more global reach and include groups from other countries such as Mozambique, Brazil, and Egypt, which might not have been able to participate under normal situations. Perhaps the Virtual PJF will be a success, and we will adopt a hybrid model for the following editions. If we don’t innovate and experiment, we will never know.”

For his part, Eric points out that, “just as everything in this new way of life due to the pandemic, music will be reinforced in the virtual area, clinics and concerts will be re-attempted to reach the screen, providing new experiences.”

Carlos agrees that the Panama Jazz Festival has had to reinvent itself “we have more than 100 educational activities, collaborations with musicians from all over the world; we have a Music Therapy Symposium, Afro-Panamanian Symposium, concerts, Jam Sessions, all from home, with super easy accessibility and connectivity.

Although this year the Festival will be held online, how important is the physical space in which the Festival usually occurs?

All six agree that the City of Knowledge provides the different spaces that the event requires: from the classrooms’ quality, the diversity of common areas that promote exchange, where families can also sit down to enjoy jazz. Carlos believes that the City of Knowledge, as a center for innovation, research, and education, is an appropriate space to become the “hub of jazz” during the Panama Jazz Festival.

For Samuel, “the City of Knowledge is the ideal location since it’s a historical site where we remember our freedom and power of unity.”

Sofía, on the other hand, thinks the City of Knowledge provides an environment that gives a magical touch to the entire festival: “the trees, the music, and the sky are the perfect ingredient to spend one of the best moments there. It is the ideal place to enjoy the festival and give life a different air. ”

How do you value the role of the Danilo Pérez Foundation?

Students and teachers also agree on the key role of the Danilo Pérez Foundation. Samuel and Carlos recognize that the support of the Foundation was fundamental in their personal and professional growth. Also, “credibility, commitment, and consistency have helped maintain our educational programs even in these difficult times. We can say that the Foundation is a space that fosters better people, individuals of integrity, globalization, and excellent musicians in Panama, ” Carlos says.

Eric and Sofia agree on this too, and emphasize that its main value is that “through music and discipline, it has helped guide many young people and adolescents giving them new opportunities.”

Last but not least, any tips for future students?

Sofia and Eric emphasize the importance of being constant and trusting in yourself to make a career in the field. Harold encourages them to “study the forerunners of jazz, learn about their history, and live and feel the music as if it were part of their lives.”

Harold Williams

Nicole recommends that they apply everything they learn or teach about jazz and music to life: “to listen to others, to dare, not to be afraid of making mistakes, to work as a team, to be disciplined.”

For his part, Carlos recommends: “do not let that inner flame die with, that inner child … that desire to learn, discover, know what else there is out there, your curiosity, the ability to search inside, observe your environment, allow yourself to hear, see and experience it all. Learning and nurturing other types of arts, talking, meeting people … this will help develop your creativity.”

Talking with teachers and students leaves us with a feeling of pride, knowing that there are such opportunities for those who live this musical genre with passion in our country. Those of us who do not have the gift of being virtuous in music, we will be able to enjoy it – this time virtually – through the wide range of concerts (link to the festival).

We invite you to turn on your electronic devices, make yourself comfortable at home, and enjoy the Panama Jazz Festival in the company of your family bubble.

Carlos Agrazal 

“When you are a teacher, jazz becomes a way of living life creatively; it is the tool to see music as one and as part of a universal language, beyond genres, styles, countries, flags, races, and religions. Teaching we learn something new every day, the student and the teacher become explorers where jazz is that lamp and that machete that helps you see a little more of what is hidden around us.”

Carlos Agrazal

Nicole Dillman

“It is beautiful to see students arrive at the Festival clinics not only with a pencil and notebook but also with their instruments in hand. For them, it is a privilege to have professors from prestigious international universities teaching, and the students know how to recognize that it is a great opportunity to learn.”

Nicole Dillman

Sofia Fernández

“I feel that jazz has been my window into the world of music. It has allowed me to explore and discover all my capacities. It has allowed me to establish a discipline in my life from a very young age and to realize my true passion for music and art.”

Sofia Fernández

Eric García

“I dream of being able to share what I have learned and continue studying because music evolves every year. I would like to have a place where I can teach and also be able to create a musical group with people who have a similar cultural vision to the one I want to interpret.”

Eric García

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