Berklee Global Jazz Institute: Music on a Mission

Lesley Mahoney
April 28, 2014
Leandro Pellegrino of Brazil is one of the BGJI ambassadors who made the trip to Valencia, Spain.
The BGJI performs at Berklee's campus in Valencia.
Danilo Perez is artistic director for the BGJI.
The BGJI jams at Cafe Mercedes in Valencia.
BGJI ambassador Paul Melhus of Arizona
Valencia master's student and former BGJI ambassador Sergio Martinez works with the BGJI ambassadors during their visit.
BGJI ambassador Mao Sone of Japan
BGJI ambassador Roni Eytan of Israel
Photo by Histeria Producciones
Photo by Histeria Producciones
Photo by Histeria Producciones
Photo by Histeria Producciones
Photo by Histeria Producciones
Photo by Histeria Producciones
Photo by Histeria Producciones
Photo by Histeria Producciones

Luiza Sales sang the same notes over and over again. Each time, Danilo Pérez challenged her to push her boundaries as a singer.

“I always tend toward the happy side and I need to go deeper,” said Sales, a master’s student in the contemporary performance program at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain. “Danilo touched upon it right away. The thing fitting my tone of voice and my timbre—not everything has to sound happy. He said some things that were really meaningful for me as a singer.”

Sales, who hails from Brazil, was one of several students who benefited from Pérez’s intuitive and precise feedback during a jazz improvisation clinic at the Valencia campus.

He urged other groups of performers to “create shapes between the lines,” reminding them that progress often comes after taking a step back. “Leave space,” he said. “You’ll find your answer.”

This advice could be just as applicable to life as it is to music. And when it comes to Pérez, a Grammy Award-winning pianist/composer and Berklee professor, this seamlessness between music and life is exactly the point.

In fact, the Berklee Global Jazz Institute (BGJI), for which Pérez serves as artistic director, is based on the principle that with talent comes responsibility—that beyond making music for music’s sake lies the duty to effect social change and cultivate human development.

To share this message and their music, Pérez and seven members of the BGJI traveled from Boston to Valencia for a week-long visit that featured clinics, a recording session in the campus’ state-of-the-art recording studios, a jam session at a jazz café in the city, and a culminating concert. The group also managed to squeeze in some Valencian culture: tasting paella and attending a mascletà, a daily fireworks display leading up to the annual Falles festival.

“I think the most valuable thing Danilo brings is the awareness of our social commitment as musicians,” said Sales, following a talk Pérez gave entitled “Jazz as a Tool for Social Diplomacy.” “We have to think about not only making music but making a better world through our work and our music.”

Indeed, Sales said the first thing she plans to do when she returns home to Brazil is return to singing in hospitals.

“Music can be used as a tool for social change in many ways,” Pérez told the audience. “We need missionaries . . . You have that potential.”

He added, “You want to be famous? Yes. You want to make money? Of course. But leave a little room for the underprivileged.”

Lessons in Life and Music 

When the BGJI travels, along with performing its original compositions at festivals, clinics, and schools, members also volunteer at places such as hospitals, prisons, homeless shelters, and nursing homes. The group has helped build cajónes in Panama and has composed and performed music to winning entries from a prison poetry contest.

The BGJI—a performance program composed of 30 students who are selected by a rigorous admissions process—fosters creativity and musicianship through an interdisciplinary and experiential approach and a curriculum featuring ensembles, workshops, private study, and seminars. Students are mentored by and perform with jazz masters like faculty members Pérez, Joe Lovano, and Terri Lyne Carrington.

The students learn about themselves as musicians and as human beings.

“I feel the change. The growth the BGJI has made in me is way bigger than the music,” said Roni Eytan, a harmonica player from Israel who was part of the group that traveled to Valencia. “Through the BGJI, I’ve learned and keep learning how to become a better human being.”


Watch a video about the BGJI's recent trip to Berklee's campus in Valencia, Spain.

And it won’t end at Berklee.

“The mission is something I’ll pursue for the rest of my career,” Eytan said. “You’ve got to give back. You’ve got to try to make a positive change through the power of music. Being around people like Danilo, [faculty] John [Patitucci], and [BGJI managing director] Marco [Pignataro] is so inspiring, seeing how much they are committed to giving, helping others, and sharing what they have with other people. And that’s just a constant inspiration.”

The culminating concert during the BGJI’s visit to Valencia was a testament to another one of the BGJI’s tenets: a high level of creative exploration.

Along with Danilo Pérez  and the BGJI members, others from the Valencia family and beyond shared the stage, including Valencia faculty members Victor Mendoza, who directs the contemporary performance master’s program, and Alain Pérez, who was also the former bass player for Paco de Lucía’s band; Allan Chase, chair of the Boston campus’ Ear Training Department; three master’s students; and a professional flamenco musician, Rafael de Utrera, who improvised with Danilo Pérez for the first time on stage and left the audience in awe.


Watch a clip from the BGJI concert in Valencia, featuring flamenco musician, Rafael de Utrera.

For one performer, master’s student Sergio Martínez, a percussionist from Madrid who was part of the BGJI while a student in Boston, the performance brought everything full circle. He is continuing his studies at the Valencia campus in the contemporary performance master’s program and received a BGJI assistantship to explore collaborations between the BGJI and Berklee in Valencia. “We want to build projects that can be followed, to create an infrastructure for other BGJI students to come here, and to start to build a basis for BGJI here.”

This first visit to Valencia was a good start. “There’s a great interaction happening and that is what we’re about,” Pérez said during his visit. “This whole place is very inspirational. It invites creativity.” In fact, inviting the performers from the Valencia campus fueled a creative exploration of global influences and a true cultural exchange.

Ganavya Doraiswamy, a master’s fellow on the Valencia campus, sang in classical Indian style for the concert. “I’m still new to jazz but global jazz by definition is more suited to musicians like me who come from different backgrounds. In addition to being able to perform with the BGJI, being able to hear them perform was wonderful, inspiring, and comforting.”

And for the BGJI students, seeing Pérez work with the musicians from Valencia was a reminder of the power of the group’s mission and leadership. “Seeing Danilo work with students who have never experienced his teaching was inspiring,” said Anthony Fung, a drummer from Ontario.