Bassist Jeff Berlin Pays Tribute to Charlie Banacos
[Editor's note: Bassist Jeff Berlin first emerged in the early 1970s with artists including Gil Evans, Ray Barretto, Pee Wee Ellis and Don Pullen. But it was his fusion work with British drummer Bill Bruford on albums including Feels Good to Me (Winterfold, 1977) and One of a Kind (Winterfold, 1979) that he gained greater international exposure and a reputation as one of jazz's finest (and undervalued) electric bassists. Since that time, Berlin has released a small but significant discography including Lumpy Jazz (M.A.J., 2004) and Aneurhythms (M.A.J., 2007), and founded of The Players School of Music in Clearwater, Florida. Here, he delivers a personal tribute to the recently departed musician and master educator, Charlie Banacos.]
I know what cancer can do to a family because my son had it when he was five years old. But, unlike my friend and teacher Charlie Banacos, Jason beat the disease that recently took the greatest music teacher I ever had.
Back in the late 1970s, I was a young bassist making my mark in the New York music scene. Most nights I played almost every club with the top guys. During the day, I stood next to Will Lee, Anthony Jackson and Steve Gadd at the musician's union to collect my royalty checks for all the jingles and record dates that I was doing at that time.
While my income and reputation were growing, my interest in music eventually took precedence over my wish for a career in music. I simply had to know more things about playing than I already knew. I made an easy decision and simply chucked it all in, just quit on New York and packed up a moving truck and moved to Boston. Why Boston? There was a music teacher there that everybody was talking about named Charlie Banacos. I had heard that he was a phenom, that he could change any player's musical life. The word was, this guy was someone so unique that there almost was no precedence for what and how he taught. I heard that he could listen to anyone and prescribe and update via new musical information to improve one's playing. I was so excited at the prospect of spending time with this brilliant and motivated teacher that, in 1978, while touring and recording with Bill Bruford, I moved north and rented an apartment on Queensbury Street in Boston in the same building that guitarist Mike Stern coincidentally lived in, and then contacted Charlie and asked to take lessons with him.
Charlie was already a local legend. People spoke of him with respect. He was a guy who also taught Berklee and New England Conservatory students while they were still in school. This was a serious guy and his students were serious musicians. This was the environment that I wanted to be in. When I started to study with him, I found out that his reputation wasn't exaggerated in the least. Actually, it didn't even come close to the actual truth about his great gifts to teach and to create one-of-a-kind lessons.
At the time, he had a small studio off of Beacon Street in Brookline. That little space that he rented was Ground Zero for some of the most outstanding music lessons in jazz. To think about it now, it is almost inconceivable to imagine that the world of music wasn't aware about the astonishing events of musical greatness that were going on in that little cubicle off of Beacon Street.
Right away with me, he hit a few notes and some intervals on the piano to check out my ear. This was the first lesson that led to a relationship between us that lasted over 30 years. No matter where I was in my career, I knew that Charlie would give me learning principles to raise my game, to help me to search even deeper for something special to learn in music. He simply was a bottomless well of musical information. His gifts were so widely regarded that some of the greatest players in jazz sought out his lessons while they were already famous. For all their fame, Dave Liebman, Michael Brecker and Jerry Bergonzi stood in awe of Charlie Banacos.
It is interesting to note that this dedicated musician was also a guy with a kooky sense of humor. He was a wacky guy, and our individual wackiness jelled beautifully. Charlie just didn't appear to be the kind of guy who could also be the brilliant musician that he was. As a man, he was pretty much the opposite in appearance to what one might think a musical genius should look like (whatever that might be). This modest looking fellow blended right into that group that might be called the "common man"; he just didn't stand out in appearance or bearing. He had a high, almost squeaky voice with a heavy "Baston" accent and if clothing defined genius, then Charlie was Rodney Dangerfield in Easy Money (1983). In reflection, it was kind of ironic that inside this humorous average fellow beat the heart and mind of one of the greatest music teachers of the 20th and 21st centuries.