Charlie Banacos: Recollections of a Legend
"You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone" Joni Mitchell
"There are a dozen ways to hit a key." Charlie Banacos
How do you say goodbye to someone who truly changed you; someone who you know caused you to be a better person just for having known them? How do you say goodbye to someone you came to love and respect for their brilliance and sense of humor, who also made you the best musician you could be? I haven't come up with an answer other than to just try to continue to live the way he did, doing the best you can, looking inside to self improve and trying to share his essence with others.
Charlie Banacos wasn't a household word, though being a musician/music student in Boston in the mid-'80s, every household I knew rang with his name. If you were serious, either you were studying with him, on his waiting list or taking a break to practice his material (or recover).
"He who can, does; he who can't, teaches," right? When it came to Banacos there's only one response to that: bullshit. The question was never: could he hang with the best in the jazz and classical worlds, but could they hang with him. In many instances the answer would be no.
He could not only effortlessly play rings around some of the biggest names in (not just) improvised music, he also happened to be gifted with the ability to instantly analyze, distill, codify and impart that knowledge in ways that were the most effective, yet sometimes unconventional. You would never realize you were learning as much as you were until much later.
He wasn't for everyone. A lot of people couldn't handle Banacos.' (How bad could it be?) They'd think they could and they'd all start with good intentions and then...not come back. The irony was that he knew exactly what you needed for years into the future just from listening to you play for a minute, and would invariably save you years of work just by making sure you focused on what you needed the most.
Banacos was an experience, a gauntlet you more than willingly ran. It was a marathon, not a sprint.
It took everything you had and then some. He always knew though, what was best, what was enough or too much. He used to say, "You can't have a life if you're going to do this... you can't have friends, a social life, anything." And he was right, it was a life decision. Practicing 8-10 hours a day while attending Berklee was impossible. You couldn't really do both, so you made a choice.
A multi-creative study in contrastshighly private yet high energyan attempt at description might include: Clear, quick, witty, honest, insightful, intuitive, visionary, inquisitive, curious, caring, manic and truly alive are among the descriptions you might hear. He was also an author (six cult status books on pentatonics and voicings), composer, genius, inspiration, brilliant improviser/ reluctant performer, joker, guru, artist, multi-linguist, matchmaker, family man, a true force and living legend.
Though one of the finest improvisers in the world, on any instrument, Banacos chose to spend his 50 year career1959-2009beyond the limelight, behind his Steinway or B-3, bringing the best out (sometimes only he knew was there) in those who were fortunate enough to find themselves in his presence for a half hour each week. From his small home studio tucked away by the shore of the lobster fishing capital of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Banacos churned out the next generations of improvisers, performers and inspirations in the sonic arts.
Boston was absolutely swarming with musical talent in the '80s, especially if you were a guitarist looking for a new sound. For at any given moment you could hear Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, Bill Frisell, Wayne Krantz, John Scofield and Mick Goodrick playing small dives, stretching out and making the hippest, most definitive statements; trying out what they were working on. And things you would not hear on record. What you might not realize is that there was a brilliant, hermetic, pianist behind much of what you were hearing. If you were to ask any of them who Banacos was or what he was about, get ready to stay awhile, there's a lot to tell.
As his two-year plus waiting list attested, there wasn't anyone, any musician he couldn't offer something to; and always excited to do so. Fascinated by language, humor, all forms and styles of music...with child-like abandon, he blurred it all together, like finger paint, he seemingly saw no boundaries in music or in life, and wanted you not to, as well, knowing this was the way...the most energized state to be in to create and confidently glow with the knowledge he was gladly imparting. I can still hear it. "This is gonna change your playing completely, man!" he'd say, cackling as he passed me some of his latest hieroglyphics. And it did...and does, and will forever. As important as those lessons were, even those who chose not to pursue music as a career still hear his words echo and realize he was teaching us all life lessons, well beyond music.
Banacos exuded all and more, effortlessly. You always imagined him a little kid, giddy and full of mischief but always came away with the doors of perception blown off their hinges. Worlds of possibilities you never realized existed spread at your feet and beyond into infinity. Only the work left to do to get to them, to make them your own. And he did that. He made each musician who made the pilgrimage (and it was) to the tiny, seaside town of Gloucester on Massachusetts' North Shore feel in turns frustrated, invincible, edifiedand back againand a member of what felt like a small but powerful secret society which included a who's who of contemporary jazz and some of the greatest musicians of our time: Mike and Leni Stern, Bill Frisell, Michael Brecker, Joey Calderazzo, Danilo Perez, Jeff Berlin, Alain Caron, Kenny Werner, George Garzone, Bill Pierce. Even Pat Metheny took a few lessons and John Scofield was on his waiting list. What does that tell you?
Just in his teens, his first band included Harvie S and Jerry Bergonzi. Though Banacos hardly performed live beyond his twenties, he did go on to work with Roy Haynes, Harvie S, Charlie Mariano, Teddy Kotick, Gary Dial and others, but could've played with anyone.
A friend since sixteen, tenor saxophonist (with the Brubecks), Jerry Bergonzi, recalls both his and Banacos' interest in the metaphysical. Besides playing together constantly, meditation was also a shared interest. Bergonzi recounts in their late teens they'd both meditate on objects, such as a tree or the Merrimack River, trying to discern the core tone/frequency of that object. On the count of three, after a few minutes of meditation they'd both sing the tone they'd perceived and never once sang a different note. That alone should express the kind of being we're talking about.
You'd think from all of this Banacos was as serious as they get, but another great story is something Banacos' brother witnessed. Their father was doing repairs on the roof of their house and at one point Banacos' brother noticed he has dangling from the ladder. He yells for Banacos to come help him get his dad down to which Banacos replied, "Wait 'til the tune is over."
It's no wonder he only slept four hours a night. Knowing him, it was all he could do to sleep at all with his head full of compositions he was writing and ideas he wanted to share with his 300-plus students (at any given time). Intuitive, interested in everything, boundless energy, early on he taught an 8am-midnight schedule at his Coolidge Corner studio. Heavy on ear training, or "straining," as he called it. He was an astounding inspiration to many thousands and is responsible for what much of modern music sounds like now.
Early on December 8th, 2009, Banacos left us, at the behest of an aggressive cancer at a very young 63. Positive to the end, he had only words of encouragement for all his students, past and present. He seemed unconcerned with himself and as brave as anyone could ever be. He never really aged or became set in his ways; always forward thinking and progressive. He defied age whether it was stylistic or chronological. There were times I thought he would levitate off the ground he was so excited to share some ideas and see what we'd do with them.
Wethose who knew himare among the thousands who both mourn his loss and celebrate his life and teachings. Thank you Charlie, we'll never forget you.
Maybe the best expression of Banacos' inspiration can be seen in the following words of those who know him best.
"Charlie had a desire to keep music pure. He was a very intuitive player and he tuned into people and music. He was selfless, had no ego and he had a fantastic sense of humor. A lot of people don't know, he was a matchmaker...he even introduced me to my wife, who's also named Jerri. Charlie and I met when we were about 16. We'd play together, sometimes all daylike 8 hoursand we'd be exhausted and would end up taking a nap on the floor, and we'd still have a gig that night. I remember Charlie's mom just walking over us [laughs]. His inspiration is what I remember the most."
"As you know I was one of the few that played with Charlie years ago. Trust me, he was a great pianist, also. I mean really great. I loved the guy and the world will miss him."
"Studying with Charlie was the most important thing I ever did in my life.
"I had the pleasure of studying with Charlie Banacos for the better part of 30 years. He is the greatest teacher I ever had. What a great spirit, what a special person, such positive energy. We need more people like him. There are so few. I will miss him forever and I aspire to be like him."
"Michael and I are very sad. We will miss him so much.
""Charlie Banacos helped me to organize my musical concepts. I always have a lot of ideas. Charlie's mind works like no other. He sees structure where I see chaos. He is a genius. He always gave me composition homework. Many of my tunes are based on his principles.
"I started studying with Charlie when I first came to America from Europe. He had a way of untangling the mysteries of jazz for everybody, especially his students from other countries that didn't grow up listening to jazz. His teaching was very personal. I remember asking him once about an exercise he had given to Michael and he said: Why do all my students want to know what I teach the other students? It's like trading prescriptions from a doctor! I kept studying with him for many years after moving to New York. I would send my latest recording and ask for my prescription. He was always encouraging, amazingly creative and very, very accurate. I will miss Charlie so much."
"I did take a few lessons from Charlie. I paid him for a series of three lessons. I only managed to take two of them. It's funny though. I use the little things from the lessons every night. Due to my touring and over all laziness, I never took the last lesson. We had an ongoing joke that I was his best student, and that he owed me this lesson, meanwhilethis was 10 years later. He was truly a funny guy and a hell of a teacher."
"The best jazz teacher I've ever known.
"He mostly affected how I practice. From him I got the idea that anything musical can be broken down into something that can be practiced efficiently, no matter how nebulous it seems initially. That's what enables me now to feel like I'm developing continually under my own steam, following my ideas where they'll lead me.
"I'd heard about Charlie for years from friends who were studying with him. I got on his waiting list and about a year later his secretary called to schedule a lesson time. This would have been around 1980. When I finally met him I was shocked that he was so young. I had assumed such a legendary teacher would have to be much older. He seemed like a kid, inside and out. A kid with the vast musical comprehension of a master. Not that he would ever dwell on that fact for even one secondhe was too busy focusing on the student and the work that needed to be done.
"I was with him for a year. We went through his exercises which, amazingly, summarized jazz history up to that point. Like all his students I worked hard, harder than ever before. I'd just graduated from music school but had never been inspired like that. His students trusted him and were willing to scale whatever mountains he pointed us to. We didn't want to let him down. I used to love hearing him in the lessons, he was such a fantastic pianist. And if he got excited by something I played I really took it to heart.
"Charlie taught me how to practice. His methods inspired me to come up with an approach of my own that would face the math and follow the muse, like his did. But all that happened later. At the time I was too busy logging the insane hours necessary to cover his workload.
"A few years after studying with him I was stuck in purgatory in Boston, doing silly gigs and getting nowhere. One day I heard a message on my machineit was Charlie. 'Hey Waaaaayne, hey Waaaaayne,' he said. 'Move to New York, man! You gotta get out of here, man!! Go to New York!!' I hadn't talked to him in ages, I don't know how he knew what I was going through. But I more or less packed my bags the next day and got the hell out of there. Another thing to thank him for.
"We stayed in touch some over the years but I never saw him again. I studied with him by mail for a while when I was feeling lost. As I assume was the case with all his students, I would send him my records when they came out and he would always send handwritten letters back to me about them, all of which I kept and treasure. Only Charlie could have managed the discipline to do that on top of all his other commitments to students. The last one came just recently, I don't know if it was before or after the illness struck him. He didn't mention that.
"I gather Charlie had a strong family life, which offers some consolation for the disappointment we all feel about his life ending before it might have. He loved and he was loved, he inspired and he was inspired. That's as good as it gets, and Charlie, who knew everything, unquestionably knew that."
"Charlie Banacos was a brilliant teacher with an incredible awareness for the individual and unique needs of each student. He really inspired me, taught me to teach myself, and his sense of humor was uplifting. His capacity to look at humanity through the lens of music was admirable."
"Charlie was an amazing musician and the teacher's teacher. I'm just beginning to figure out ways to apply some of the things he taught me in the brief time I studied with him."
"I studied with him for six years from '82-'88 and took a couple lessons since then. For the past year-and-a-half my 16 year-old daughter was studying and we saw each other every week when I'd bring for the lesson. It was great to see him again. He looked great. You would never guess he was sick.
"He tried to graduate me twice back in the '80s but I didn't want stop the lessons. In my first lesson he assigned me to transcribe Herbie Hancock's solo on 'There is No Greater Love' from [Miles Davis' Four and More (Columbia, 1963). I practiced real hard because I respected him so much and wanted to do well. I got the solo down in a week on upright bass. Charlie used to like to tease people who didn't practice and Bill Pierce was studying at the same time. Bill had been on the road with Tony Williams and missed some lessons. If you missed lessons and wanted to stay in Charlie's schedule it meant you must pay for every missed lesson. During my second lesson Bill knocked on the door to pay Charlie. He said, 'Come on man I want you to hear something man. Bruce is going to play the whole solo you were supposed to learn on string bass man ha!' Go ahead, Bruce. I played the solo and Charlie looked at Bill and said, 'See man, see what happens when you practice?'
"Because I am one of Jerry Bergonzi's closest friends, though not as long as is Charlie, he would always talk about Jerry. He mentioned a time when the neck of Jerry Kay's upright bass went through his windshield. At that time in the '60s, I believe they were playing strip clubs in Boston.
"That was before I knew either of them. I have a huge amount of notes from my lessons. Charlie would give you a line to practice that was so burning and challenging and hip. Then if he knew you were going to practice the shit out it he would draw a skull and crossbones on the page and say, 'If it hurts after awhile, stop and rest.' There are all these little extra notes on the page like a picture of a good and bad hand position. Next to the good picture it says' gooooood' or 'baaaaaad'!
"He would put four or up to six beams on something if he wanted you to get it down so you could play it fast. He would always play a I -V -I progression when he did ear training. After the cadence he would hit one, two, three or as many notes as you were working on. He used to be funny with the progression by playing a minor second top note of each triad and make it sound like The Twilight Zone. I heard him say, 'You'll never get it, never.'
"I have so much more to say. What a wonderful teacher and person he was. We all miss him. I have not had a full night sleep since he died.
"We're trying to set up some scholarships in his name and also present concerts with many of his students. He actually taught Mike Brecker, Mike Stern, Kenny Wernereven Miles tried to take lessons with Charlie."
Recollections/Reflections of Charlie Banacos from John Novello
Written on Dec 22, 2009 with tears of joy!
I arrived Boston in the early '70s to study at Berklee College of Music. No sooner was I there a few weeks, word came through social channels that I should call Charlie Banacos' office and ask to now be put on his year-long waiting list. I said really... a year long waiting list? When I inquired what all the fuss was about, I was told that he's the cat to study jazz improvisation with, which was one of the main reasons I left Erie, Pa., to travel to Boston to go to Berklee.
That was so long away for me I simply forgot about it. After, of course, I did put my name on the golden list and then about 8 months later on a Saturday morning, I got awakened by a phone call from Charlie's office saying he had a slot opening today at 11AM and did I want it? Half asleep I somehow perceived the importance of this question and opportunity almost like I knew this was an important event in my music destiny!
I jumped out of bed and began immediately practicing for what I did not know which in hindsight demonstrated to me the altitude and reputation Charlie's work had. Of course there's no way one can cram last minute where you are as a musician. You are where your ears and chops are and true to form, Banacos found out where I lived in about three minutes after I had arrived and here's how that initial encounter went as, I'll never forget it.
The door opened at 11AM on a Saturday, 1973, not sure of the month, and Charlie let out the student before me and looked at me and said, "You must be John?" I said, "Yes," excitedly but apprehensively! On one hand I was hoping that this was the cat that could shed some light on the mystery of jazz lines and on the other hand I was sure he'd see right through me as far as where I was as a player. There were two upright pianos in the room against the wall and Charlie motioned me over to the first piano closest to the door and said, "Let's see what we have here."
I sat down with total stage fright and he said, 'OK, we're here to study jazz improv, right?' I said, 'Yes,' hesitantly. He said, 'OK, let's play a blues in B,' and before I could verbalize 'No way can I do that,' I heard 'one, two, three, four,' and off I was playing a blues in B with Charlie playing walking bass and compingkiller swing groove by the waywhilst I crashed and burned! After a couple of choruses Charlie stopped and said, 'No problem, you're just missing some ear training, rhythm and jazz line drills. Let's get to work!' He said this with so much caring and certainty that I instantly forgot my recent horrible performancemeaning my horrible two choruses on the blues in Band relaxed as I knew I was, not only in good hands but that I had also found the Avatar of jazz improv! How? A person just knows, man! The rest is history and was the most amazing journey of my life! I had only three teachers in my life that had such influence on my career and Charlie was the third and final one! I had found the Holy Grail man!!!
My studies with Charlie were so amazing and life changing, that had it not been for having to make a living, I could of easily stayed in Boston and simply been a student of Charlie's forever as he could ALWAYS take anybodyno matter how good a player they wereto a higher level!
The last thing he said to me, which I did not understand at the time, was "Hey John, remember: there's playing music and then there's the music business, man. Don't ever get them mixed up!!!" Boy did I learn that lesson the hard way!
Thanks Charlie! You are the BEST!!!
Your humble student,
"I also recall a time in the past year or so when Charlie's daughter, Barbara came to see Jerry and me at the Acton Jazz Cafe. She said we wanted to get Jerry and Charlie back together to play. When I was studying in the '80s, Jerry and I talked about recording with Charlie. At my lesson I sounded Charlie to record with Jerry and me. He said, 'Man, when I decide to record, you guys'll be the first ones I call.' I remember how honored I was that he included me. At that time I'd been studying around four years and we would mostly play duo at the lessons. He was such an amazing player. Too bad people other than his students won't get to hear that. He could emulate Chick [Corea], Herbie [Hancock], McCoy [Tyner], Keith [Jarrett], Red [Garland], Wynton [Kelly], you name it, and he had his own shit that was just killer!"
"I had a gig in Tel Aviv last night and someone told me about Charlie few minutes before I went on the stage. Man, I felt so sad I was not sure I can play. Lots of memories came to me, and you know what, I had one of my best playing ever!! He was not only a great teacher and a pianist but mostly an amazing human being, never met anyone like him. I study with him like a year maybe and developed a friendship with him and I admired him not only for his musicality but for his attitude, I saw him three weeks after his big brain surgery like 22 years ago, and he was so funny and took everything in such a humor and easy way that it was hard to understand.
"He will be dearly missed to us who knew him and learn so much from him and more important to so many other to be his future students. He was the best!! Me being a Jewish man, he had this funny thing he would tell me every time he saw me: 'Hey Mordechai, don't be a loser without a mezuzah.' This is the first thing that came to me now, I'm sure more stuff will come to me the more I think about this time in Boston. All the best. Shalom"
From Charlie on November 27, 2009
Just a short note to let you know everything's cool. All of your messages are so great and are helping me and my family cope with all this. First I thought I had a cold, but no! It's pneumonia! Then, while treating the pneumonia they find out I have an aggressive form of cancer. So I'm being treated for that with some of the greatest doctors in the world. So basically that's the story.
I also just wanted to mention a couple of things that might help somebody else. As you do things through life you'll learn a lot of things and some of them never really get tested. In other words, it's all just theory unless it actually gets tested against something. So I've been testing certain things and I wanted you to know the results of some of the tests.
I've studied meditation and breathing exercises for example from a young age and I noticed that when I have tests here in the hospital there are certain breathing techniques that do help you overcome the pain more than others. So you might want to try learning some techniques like this, and hopefully you'll never have to go through anything like this, but it's good to have them in your "arsenal."
Another great way to practice when you can't move around too much is figure out the chord or chords that you hear in the hospital and use that to practice different sonorities. I'll give you an example of what's happening right now: most of the electronic sounds of this hospital at this moment are Bs, D#s, F#s and A-naturals. Now there are other sounds, but those are the predominant sounds coming from the electronic equipment (and people yelling 'Code Red!!!' Just kidding...). So you could say, right at this moment, I'm swimming around in a pool of Bdom7. If you use that as a basis, the next time you hear somebody yell "code" you can practice and name its function against the B7 chord as quickly as possible and it makes a type of symphony.
For example, let's say someone says "saline" and you notice that they said it on E and G, you would say to yourself "sa" is four and "line" is flat-6. Let's say you hear a nurse say "stat" and it just happens to be an F, you might say "Oh, that was #4 (or flat-5)." This way you can do this all day long and have a mini symphony going on. I hope you never have to use this kind of exercise in this type of situation, but it works everywherein diners, supermarkets, etc. So try it and you might have fun playing that game.
Once again, thank you for the really great messages. And I really feel bad that I can't be giving you lessons right at this time. I'm using this time as much as possible to prepare things that my family can help me with to pass on information. One of my daughters, Barbara, has been especially helpful on the music end of things, as she is a great classical pianist and just started to get into the jazz "thing" recently. She's the one who's actually taking this dictation for me and just mentioned that we should pretend we're just around a camp-fire instead of in a hospital room. Maybe my positive-thinking and imagery here in the hospital is influencing her just a little too muchhuh?
God bless you!
Hope to see you soon!
From Charlie on December 7, 2009 (the day before he passed away)
It's been a few days and I just wanted to give you an update.
The yoga breathing is still working out good. Some of you have asked what breathing techniques I'm using. Mia Olson's book (Yoga for Musicians) is a good place to read about it. I highly recommend her book. She really seems to know what she's doing. Please let her know that I was already recommending that people read her book. And just in case you're wondering, this is not a paid endorsement! :)
All the letters, cards, gifts and emails are so powerful with your spiritual messages and prayers. Many of you are also doing a good job of cracking me up with your humor. They're really helping me and my family. I really appreciate it and I know they really appreciate it too. I wish I could answer every one of them personally but there's just too many. I hope you understand. Some people have even offered monetary gifts and organ transplants. And I've even heard from people I've never met and only know me through my teaching. You are all telling me how much I've given you, but what you are giving me and my family right now cannot be measured.
Please continue your prayers for me and keep practicing your usual 10 hours a day. It's nice to see real musicians that do music for music's sake.
Sorry I cannot have visitors or take personal phone calls. Please understand.
God bless you,
It may be hard to believe but this music as we know it would not be the same without the influence of one Charlie Banacos. In one way or another, he is a part of all of us now and he'll live on in our all we do.
The anecdotes are legend and far too numerous to list here. Among them: When guitarist Mike Stern showed his employer, Miles Davis, some of Banacos' ear-training exercises, Davis stated "I know that Banacos. Give me his telephone number. I'm gonna get me some lessons."
Michael Brecker, another student, once said of Banacos "He's some kind of genius."
Some Quotes from Banacos' Lessons with Joe Reid
- "If you play with your fingers, you're dead"
- "The fingers are passive"
- "The body doesn't want to stop"
- "The body doesn't like angles"
- "Row the boat"
- "You feel like a diver by the side of a pool, ready to jump"
- "Play with your arms, not your fingers"
- "Of course it's difficult; that's why they call it an etude"
- "Ear trainingit's Zen, not Aristotelian"
- "Gain purchase"
- "Don't measure" (as you practice ear traininghear it all at once)
- "Piano techniqueit's Aristotelian, not Zen"
- "Each note has its own shape as it goes by, like you're driving by the planets"
- "Keep your fingers near the keys, and don't be afraid to raise your wrist"
- "Don't change the exercises"
- "It's a coordination problem"
- "Just because you don't speak like MLK doesn't mean you shouldn't talk"
- "Think of the numbers, not hand positions"
- "Circles, Squares, Triangles -separate them" i.e. one idea after the next, not on top"
- "Plan your practicing, or you will be overwhelmed"
- "Use all the tensions on the lines; use all the figurations for each voicing"
- "It doesn't matter what finger you use"
- "Think like a drummer, using space and range"
- "Close your eyes and sit in the audience watching and listening"
- "Re: sight readingit's a craft, not an art"
- "Oh, and do it in all twelve keys." Kill!
- "Divisive rhythm/additive rhythm"
- "Elephant with a stick in his trunk" (using it as a guide as you walk/play).
- "He's [insert name here e.g. Mingus, Jerry B. etc.] whacked, but he can play"
- "Deep into the keys" (toward the center of the earth and toward the fallboard)
Charlie Quoting the Masters:
- "It's not technique, its timing" Oscar Peterson
- "Practice without accents" Oscar Peterson
- "The body is a rock; the arms are snakes" Claudio Arrau
- "All notes are 'up' notes" Martha Argerich
- "Feel the Ground" Anton Rubinstein
- "It's all about circles" Chick Corea
- "Think of elephants, giraffes and hippos as you play" Bill Evans
- "C fingerings in all keys" Franz Liszt
- "Giant Steps solo in all keys" George Coleman
- "Music is Technique"Nadia Boulanger
- "Practice for the performance" Chick Corea
- "You must be a good draftsman before you can be a great painter" Bill Evans
- "Practicing is pushing a wallyou wake up the next day the wall has moved" Bill Evans
- "Don't force the keys" Art Tatum (to Red Garland)
- "Each time is different"Artur Schnabel, upon practicing the same phrase 200 times
- "Three hours before breakfast" Mike Stern
- "Enslavement to the notation" Craig Taubman
- "Nothing difficult about itjust hit the right keys at the right time" J.S. Bach
- "You can't be unhappy and be learning something new at the same time" Merlin
Memorial donations may be made to "Cancer Research," c/o MGH Development Office, 165 Cambridge St., Suite 600, Boston, MA 02114
Did you study with Charlie Banacos? If so, post your experiences and memorable quotes here.