The Berklee Global Jazz Institute (BGJI) is a performance program designed to foster creativity and musicianship through various musical disciplines, with pianist and composer Danilo Pérez as its artistic director. The BGJI provides a comprehensive contemporary music environment where students are given opportunities to explore their creativity to the highest level possible, advance the power of music as a tool for the betterment of society, and connect musical creative thinking with the natural environment.
During my first audition for Berklee Global Jazz Institute I was star struck. Walking into the BGJI office, Danilo Perez, Marco Pignataro, and John Pattituci sat at a table in the corner of the room. The first time I had heard Danilo Perez was at the Blue Note in New York City with Jack DeJohnette’s band a few years earlier. Sitting behind him that evening I was convinced he had something similar to the powers of Storm from X-Men. With the rhythmic integrity and harmonic colors he played with it seemed like he could crack open the sky with thunder and rain or cause the sun to come out at will. Pattituci’s rich bass sound and the grooves he creates with Brian Blade on records like Wayne Shorter’s ‘Beyond the Sound Barrier’ are something friends I played with used to imitate as best as they could.
That day, my audition did not go great. I was setting up my saxophone when I realized I had forgotten my reeds at home. Asking to go to the bathroom I ran home to my apartment and arrived back completely out of breath. After playing some shaky standards my audition continued on to the interview portion. Danilo Perez intensely questioned how true my connection to my instrument was: “If you heard piece of a Shostakovich composition in your mind, would you be able to play it immediately?” Coming out of my first and unsuccessful audition, I first went home and tried to play pieces of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues. But additionally, I started to attend more and more BGJI events that were open to the entire Berklee community.
I became more familiar with the playing of the members in the group, and maybe more importantly I became familiar with the attitude at the core of BGJI. In a way it is tricky to describe. Professionalism and a high level of proficiency are expected, but there is another layer to it: a sense of vulnerability. Music has the power to inspire closeness in a community of people, and through closeness a community can experience a flavor of freedom and honesty that otherwise is very difficult to come by. In order to allow the music to reach that level, you have to let everything go. To create your identity as a musician, discipline is required to build up technique and ears, yet when it comes to the present moment you cannot let any of that come in the way of the music. You’re ego has to disappear; even your sense of sonic aesthetic has to come second to giving everything into the moment.
After a second audition a year and a half later, I am in my first semester of the preparatory level of BGJI. During our monthly workshops with Danilo Perez, his main focus besides giving us a strong rhythmic foundation, is to tap into that vulnerability. As Marco Pignataro said in our ensemble rehearsal earlier today, “Anything you think you know, those guys [Perez and Ben Street] will have you rethinking it.” Perez, as a mentor, wants to tap into our subconscious, the less ordered and thoughtless centers of us: the flaws that express humanity; not the part of us that clings to order and preconceived ideas to feel safe. He has a knack for making experienced players musically uncomfortable, and does this to put you in a place where you reevaluate your relationship to sound and its possibilities.
Preparatory students also reevaluate the effects of music in a sociological setting, performing in children’s hospitals, assisted living homes, and prisons. In the upper BGJI level, these activities expand to international travels to places like the Dominican Republic. Perez and BGJI are involved in a program that funds buses to pick up children that are living in poverty, bringing them together for lessons in percussion and music. Nêgah Santos, after coming from the Dominican Republic recently shared her experiences during a forum presentation. She spoke of the way music can empower people who don’t have a lot of control in their life to be expressive and acknowledge the strength of their own voice.
Danilo Perez has all the best qualities of a mentor. During our monthly workshops with him, time disappears and the scheduled 3 hours easily spill into four. He shares his musical values with us, showing how West African rhythms are present in the music of Nina Simone, Eric Dolphy, and Son House. He also inspires and expects students to use music as a tool to create and heal in communities. With his family of other intense and detail oriented teacher/mentors like Marco Pignataro, Ben Street, George Garzone, Joe Lovano, and others it can be the ideal circumstances for a developing jazz musician.