Charlie Banacos: Recollections of a Legend

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"You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone" —Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
b.1943
vocalist

"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 contrasts—highly private yet high energy—an 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 career—1959-2009—beyond 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

Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
b.1954
guitar
, Mike Stern
Mike Stern
Mike Stern
b.1953
guitar
, Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell
b.1951
guitar
, Wayne Krantz
Wayne Krantz
Wayne Krantz
b.1956
guitar
, John Scofield
John Scofield
John Scofield
b.1951
guitar
and Mick Goodrick
Mick Goodrick
Mick Goodrick
b.1945
guitar, electric
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.

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