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January 08, 2009

Tropic Thunder: The Panama Jazz Festival

by John Oseid

Should you be in the vicinity of Panama City next week (anywhere between Canada and Chile, basically), drop into the Panama Jazz Festival. The sixth annual event series runs January 12 through 17 and I promise you: It is going to jam.

Has there been a more celebrated saxophonist working over the last 50 years than Wayne Shorter? The legendary Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis alum brings his quartet, while Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés leads his own quintet. Let the video above whet your appetite: The virtuoso Valdés reunites with his 90-year-old father Bebo, who just happens to be one of Cuba's greatest pre-Revolutionary pianists, to play Ernesto Lecuona's gorgeous classic "La Comparsa."

I attended the jazz festival's third year, and I am still raving about it. Following the official performances at the Teatro Anayansi, the informal late-night jam sessions held in the bar at the InterContinental Miramar were a blast. And I loved the free concerts held in Casco Viejo, the beautiful but ravaged World Heritage colonial center, where families picnicked the day away and young local talents showcased their chops.

The Panama Jazz Festival is the creation of Danilo Pérez, a graduate of Boston's famous Berklee College of Music. The respected composer and pianist very consciously designed the week as a non-elitist affair to honor his country's rich jazz history. Most of us know that from Hall-of-Famer Rod Carew to Yankee star Mariano Rivera, Panamanians have long prospered in baseball's big leagues. But how many of us know Panamanian jazz men have been making their way north since at least the big-band era? With your newfound knowledge in mind, head south and let a little tropic thunder rumble through your January.

More music:
* Danilo Pérezs most recent album, Across the Crystal Sea, features an all-star lineup. His Danilo Pérez Foundation promotes musical development in Panama's youth.
* Watch out for the young tambora sensation Milagros Blades. The eleven-year-old is cute as a button, but she's a mean drummer. Here's a brief clip of her in action.
* My friend Danielle Pergament recently covered the resurgence of Casco Viejo for the New York Times.
* Who knows the old town better than local kids? This video highlights a program started by the country's ministry of tourism to train Casco Viejo youth as tour guides. That's the music of actor, salsa star, and Minister of Tourism Rubén Blades in the background.
* Little-known fact: The Puerto Rican-dominant music genre Reggaetón actually developed in Panama.

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