Charlie Banacos: Recollections of a Legend
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 Stern 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.
Born August 15, 1946 Banacos' teachers included Jaki Byard, Lennie Tristano and Madame Chaloff. He attended Lowell State Teachers University where he got his teaching degree.
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.