March 15, 2008 / 12:10 AM / 10 years ago

Monk Institute bridges jazz gulf in U.S., Panama

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Danilo Perez stood before a blackboard at Loyola University in New Orleans in November. As a visiting instructor for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, the pianist addressed seven masters students.

He implored them to search within themselves, not just as musicians but as people. It is the same challenge laid down, he said, by the legendary musicians he has played with: most recently, saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

Scrawled on the blackboard were complex diagrams of Afro-Caribbean rhythms: Perez was also drawing these students outward, into his world. Little did they know how far that process would extend. In January, the Monk students participated as both performers and guest instructors in the Panama Jazz Festival, which Perez founded five years ago in his native land.

It was the latest stop in a journey of transformation for these seven musicians that began in fall 2007, when the Monk Institute’s masters program relocated to New Orleans from its previous home at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. At an announcement of the move in April, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, the program’s artistic director, invited the students to his native city — to an environment that has nurtured so many important jazz musicians and is now a city in need.


Blanchard’s recent Blue Note album, “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)” — which recently won a Grammy Award for best large jazz ensemble album — represented a personal healing. And the Monk Institute initiative, he said, was a more communal, perhaps more important offering.

“I thought long and hard about what to do after Katrina,” Blanchard said at an opening celebration, “and education seemed the key.”

Other than guitarist Davy Mooney, a New Orleans native, the Monk masters students hail from other parts of the United States and beyond: Carmichael, California (trumpeter Gordon Au); Kansas City, Missouri (bassist Joe Johnson); Long Island, New York (saxophonist Jake Saslow); Denver (drummer Colin Stranahan); and San Diego (vocalist Johnaye Kendrick). Pianist Vadim Neselovskyi was born in Odessa, Ukraine.

For the past six months, they’ve soaked up instruction from Blanchard and other world-class visiting artists, including saxophonist Benny Golson and bassist Ron Carter. They’ve offered it, too, fanning out as teachers in New Orleans schools, helping to support a troubled education system that has nevertheless long been a breeding ground for jazz musicians.

Along the way, the seven musicians have formed a tightly knit ensemble; they’ve written a steady stream of compositions performed during semi-regular gigs at such New Orleans clubs as Snug Harbor and Tipitina’s. (Some of that material can be heard at

The Monk students so impressed one jazz aficionado, author and NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, that he hired them to record tracks for his new audiobook, “On the Shoulders of Giants.” And these students found perhaps their most expansive showcase before the thousands assembled in Panama City’s Plaza de la Independencia for the closing concert of Perez’s festival.


Yet more satisfying than the applause, more thrilling than even a chance to hang out at the home of salsa/film star Ruben Blades, Panama’s Minister of Tourism, was the experience of teaching music in Panama. Perez describes the event he founded as “an educational and cultural convention, as opposed to a traditional jazz festival.” Like Blanchard in New Orleans, Perez thinks that jazz education is the greatest gift he can offer his birthplace.

“I’m concerned that the economic boom in my country doesn’t really translate to education,” he says. “To give Panama stability and balance, we need to focus more on culture.”

Perez knew that the experience of teaching a wide range of musicians in Panama — some natives, some who had traveled from throughout South and Central America — would be invigorating.

“They have been chosen for the best education in the world,” he says of the Monk students. “Now, they go to a place where students are craving information. That passion is sometimes easy to forget.”

“It was interesting to compare with clinics I’ve seen in Europe,” Neselovskyi says, “where often clinicians have to wait for questions in complete silence for few minutes.”

Au recalls the seemingly endless stream of trumpeters arriving at the clinic he taught. “They drank up every bit of the festival like it was their last chance,” he says. “For most of them, actually, the festival really is a once-in-a-year experience, since most don’t have any music program, much less jazz music, at their schools.”

“A horn player would solo, sit down, and then another would take his place,” Mooney adds. “And this would have gone on all day, I think, if we hadn’t run out of time.”

During his inaugural speech in 2007, Blanchard said that jazz education depends upon “an old African culture of how information is passed on from generation to generation.” He described how Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, both central figures in the Monk program, had passed such things on to him.

“I pass that on to these students,” he said. “And they pass it on to younger students.” In two distinct points along the diaspora of which that oral tradition speaks — New Orleans and Panama City — the process seemed intact, and it made for good music.


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