Danilo Pérez

Founder and Artistic Director
Affiliated Departments
global jazz

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A Grammy Award winner, pianist, composer, producer, and educator, Danilo Pérez is also a social activist, humanitarian, and leading proponent of global jazz. Pérez is among the most influential and dynamic musicians of our time. His music is a blend of Panamanian roots with elements of Latin American folk music, jazz, European impressionism, and African and other musical heritages that promote music as a multidimensional bridge between people.

Pérez has worked as a music educator in the U.S. and around the world for more than 20 years. He serves as a UNESCO Artist for Peace, a cultural ambassador for Panama, and artistic director of the Panama Jazz Festival. In previous years, he has served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and he has received numerous awards for his social work in Latin America.

Pérez is a recipient of the 2018 United States Artists Fellowship, the 2015 Gloria Career Achievement Award, and the 2009 Smithsonian Latino Center’s Legacy Award, to name a few. As a bandleader, he has earned numerous accolades and four Grammy nominations for his innovative recordings. As a composer, he has been awarded commissions from the International Composing Competition "2 Agosto" in Italy, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Banff Centre, and the Chicago and Detroit Jazz Festivals, among others. He has collaborated with such musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, Roy Haynes, and Cassandra Wilson.

Career Highlights
  • Leader of the Danilo Pérez Trio and the Motherland Project
  • Youngest member appointed to Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra
  • Member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet, the Roy Haynes Trio, the Steve Lacy/Danilo Pérez Duo Project, and the Children of the Light trio
  • Collaborations with Michael Brecker, Jack DeJohnette, Esperanza Spalding, Luciana Souza, and Claus Ogerman, among others
  • Judge for the Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition in 2006 and 2018, for the American Pianists Awards in 2011, and the International Songwriting Competition in 2018, among many others
  • Publications and appearances in Time, DownBeat, Jazziz, JazzTimes, and Billboard, among many others
  • PanaMonk chosen as one of the 50 essential piano recordings by DownBeat
  • Central Avenue chosen as one of the 10 best recordings across genres by Time in 1998
  • Motherland chosen by the New York Times as best record of the year
  • Named UNESCO Artist for Peace and a cultural ambassador for Panama
  • Studied at the National Conservatory of Panama
  • Private lessons with Charlie Banacos and Edna Golandsky
  • Nominated for a Grammy Award in 2019 for Best Jazz Instrumental Album with the Wayne Shorter Quartet
  • Winner of the United States Artists' 2018 Fellowship Award
  • Winner of the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago 2015 Gloria Award
  • Winner of the Smithsonian Latino Center's Legacy Award in 2009
  • Winner of a Grammy Award in 2006 for Best Jazz Instrumental Group
  • Winner of the Boston Music Awards, 1999 and 2000
In Their Own Words

"I had an incredible teacher in my father, who viewed music as a very powerful tool to change people's lives—and that's my main interest. When I was 7, a guy came and spent the whole day fixing our washing machine. While he worked, my father and I were playing music. As the guy was getting ready to leave, my father gave him something to play: ch-k-ch, ch-k-ch, ch-k-ch. He played with us for an hour. Then my father asked him, 'How much do I owe you for the work you did?' The guy said no money was needed, but said, 'How much do I owe you for the experience?'"

"I went to Panama in 1989 and right after I arrived, the U.S. invasion happened. I performed the concert anyway (I thought, if I die, I prefer to die playing). That day, people for and against the invasion came together to listen to music. That's the power of music."

"When I teach, I talk a lot about values. For example, you can learn the meaning of democracy by understanding the individual parts of a groove. When the guitar part goes che-ka, che-ka, and the bass player goes tun, tun, tun-tun, I say, 'See? When that tun-tun meets the che-ka, che-ka and someone else's chiki-chiki, that's called community.' Community values can only be expressed when we listen to each other. With technology, it's amazing that you can experience music by yourself, but there's a certain isolation within that experience that challenges the idea of community."

"Another thing that I teach is the concept of compromise and discipline. If I ask you to play a piece, you can't cheat; you have to practice. You can't move forward—you can't actually grab the instrument and play music—unless you really commit."

"Once my students understand the power of music, passion creeps in. The passion to survive, to fight for happiness. It's the passion that pulls you in so anything that comes your way—a homework assignment that takes 300 hours—does not matter anymore; you do it. A lot of my students have gone on to have great careers. The really successful ones have learned their mission in life: they see their music as a fingerprint of their lives. Once they figure out that life comes first, nothing can stop them."