Berkeley-raised drummer/composer Marcelo Pérez presents “No Means No” Saturday at the SFJAZZ Center.
Photo: Gaia Wilmer

Like a lot of young men Marcelo Pérez hadn’t thought very much about the hazards of walking around in a female body until several close friends were sexually assaulted. The Berkeley-reared drummer, 24, was in the midst of preparing for his graduate recital at New England Conservatory and wanted to channel his anger and anguish through his musical presentation, but his faculty advisers convinced him to concentrate on demonstrating his skills on the drum kit. When SFJAZZ invited him to kick off 2020’s Artists On the Rise series Saturday in the Joe Henderson Lab he decided to run with the idea (both shows are sold out).

Featuring five original compositions and several Pérez arrangements of human rights anthems like “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” (based on Nina Simone’s bracing recording), his show No Means No is designed as to raise both consciousness about sexual assault and funds for the organization San Francisco Women Against Rape. His band features some of the scene’s most exciting young improvisers, including fellow Berkeley High grad Nora Stanley on alto saxophone (she presents her own music at the California Jazz Conservatory on Jan. 28 and SFJAZZ’s Artists On the Rise Feb. 22).

Growing up in Berkeley, he was aware of the feminist critique of patriarchy “but I wasn’t extremely challenged to think about it, definitely not in school,” says Pérez, class of 2013. “My parents said if you’re at a party, keep your eyes out and protect women, make sure they’re safe.”

In the space of several months in 2018, three young women he knew were raped, including a teenage family member and another musician who was assaulted by a fellow player known as a rising talent in New York City. “It was a perfect storm of awful incidents,” Pérez says. “I was feeling very angry, sad, frustrated, disappointed. At first I was driven by anger and wanted to put men in woman’s shoes. I thought if they were to sit and think about it, it wouldn’t happen anymore. My view has changed. No Means No doesn’t come from a place of anger anymore.”

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When he moved back to the East Bay from Boston last June, Pérez didn’t have a clear idea of what the program would sound like. Talking with friends he came to feel that rather than focusing on women’s stories of trauma he wanted to use his own experience growing up male as the lens through which to focus the evening. The process has led to revealing conversations, like a friend’s account of the response that greeted the birth of his son, excitement he felt was partly due to the baby’s sex. Each of his five original compositions explore a different connection between patriarchy and rape.

“The whole concert is telling a story about my transformation from a typical young man into a more hyperaware feminist man dedicated to ending rape,” Pérez says. “Those pieces draw on Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian rhythms and jazz and funk. We’re doing three covers too of social justice songs as an homage to the musicians who’ve been at the forefront of fights in the past.”

The child of a father raised in Berkeley and a mother from El Salvador, Pérez has made numerous trips to study music in Cuba, and he returns to the island with the band Rebirth Canal for a Jan. 13 performance at the Havana Jazz Festival. Now living in Oakland, he’s been working with tenor saxophonist/composer Dann Zinn, teaching at a public school in Millbrea, and performing gospel music weekly at Oakland’s Grand Advent Church.

The ensemble he’s performing with at the SFJAZZ Center reflects the continental network of collaborators he’s forged since middle school. He started playing with Nora Stanley when they were both in San Francisco’s Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble, a potent talent incubator run by flutist John Calloway. They also played together in the Berkeley High Jazz Band (and almost overlapped in the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars), but have connected more deeply in recent months.

The LJYE is also where he met percussionist Ahkeel Mestayer, a fellow member of Rebirth Canal and a musical confidante with whom Pérez has twice traveled to Cuba to study the sacred bata drum. San Francisco-reared pianist Odalys Caro is another LJYE connection, though they didn’t get to know each other before they met at a jam session in Boston (where Caro is finishing her undergrad studies at Berklee).

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Pérez met bassist Tim Smith when they were undergrads at the University of Miami, where they played together in the school’s highly regarded big band. And vocalist Darynn Dean, a rising star who hails from an illustrious Los Angeles jazz family, was getting her bachelor’s degree at New England Conservatory when Pérez was getting his master’s.

“We first connected on social justice work,” Pérez says. “She was the president of the Initiative for Social Change and I was the vice president, trying to make NEC more inclusive. We also worked together musically in the big band, and I performed at one of her senior recitals.”

With plans to move to New York City in the summer, Pérez is a rising star himself who’s looking to make a mark on and off the bandstand. He’ll have no shortage of Berkeley High Jazz alumni to connect with if he wants.

PC Muñoz
PC Muñoz. Photo: Alexander Winter

BAMPFA’s monthly Full series continues on Friday with Howl & Beat, a program put together by inveterately inventive Bay Area recording artist and producer PC Muñoz (who’s also employed down the street as Freight & Salvage’s director of education). Inspired by the Beats and their musical confederates, the evening features literary and musical explorations by Muñoz and a talent-laden cast of poets, writers and players re-contextualizing classic works, introducing Beat-inspired originals, and conducting a live “cut-up” collaboration with the audience. Among the artists joining the fun, which is co-presented by the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, are Tongo Eisen-Martin, ASHA, Lisa Rosenberg, DEM ONE, Dan Imhoff, Shay Black, Femi Andrades, Bryan Dean, and Michael Cavaseno.

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....