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Bassist Jeff Berlin Pays Tribute to Charlie Banacos


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Jeff Berlin[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.

Charlie BanacosRight 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.

If you were into music, then Charlie would be into you. He took each student as important and equal to one another. Coming and going over the years the way that I did, I never enjoyed any privilege, except that I never had to wait in line when I disappeared into my career for a while and then came back for some tune up lessons. His waiting list extended to two years, but he always let me cut in line whenever I called him.

Jeff Berlin / Bruford From left: Dave Stewart, Bill Bruford, Alan Holdsworth, Jeff Berlin, circa 1978

I must confess that I am as proud as a peacock to know that he and I shared an almost exact philosophy of music and the learning of it. I used to say in columns or interviews that people should learn music for its own sake and not for fame or career. In perhaps his last message to his friends and students, Charlie said the exact same words, literally, a few days before he passed away. In his email, Charlie said, "It's nice to see real musicians that do music for music's sake!" I never heard anyone else say that statement in exactly that way that I have said it, and I was stunned that we were on the exact same page. Of course I know that there are many guys who share this vision of music. But the words...the words! I am still in shock that my vision of music mirrored his,

His legend was word-of-mouth; he barely placed an ad for students and his website was simple and unobtrusive, much like the man himself. And yet, his reputation as a musical Guru spread to every part of the Earth making him perhaps the most sought out individual music teacher of all time.

Charlie isolated principles of harmony that he discovered doing transcriptions of the great jazz players and used these principle to create lessons that simply did not have precedence. "French" sounding lesson titles such as Hexatonics, Intervallics, Tetratonics, Superimpositions, Harps, Overlaps, Bitonal Pendulums, Double Mambos, Twenty-third Chords, Tonal Paralypsis, and Triad Pairs described the musically life altering principles that some of the greatest players in jazz were already doing, but maybe didn't know it.

Charlie would identify perhaps two bars of, say, a McCoy Tyner solo and discover the reason for what he played. From that seed would come something so academically compelling that they sometimes left me in awe. For example, the very first line that McCoy Tyner improvised on "Passion Dance" inspired Charlie to create the "Double Mambos." It is an approach to playing based on only two triads in a mixolydian scale. Leaving out the sixth note of the scale, Charlie had me write 144 original non-repeated four bar Double Mambo examples, 12 in each key, and then practice them all on the bass. That was my lessons for that week. Leaving out that one note created a sound that was more chordal than horizontal, a principle that Charlie would return to in my case for some time.

Mike Stern lived next door to me and he was also studying with Charlie around the time that I was working with him. Mike was a few months away from joining Miles Davis' band. But, at that time, Mike was also one of Charlie's disciples. One day I went to Mike's apartment and found him lifting a phonograph needle on and off the same spot on a record so that he could hear over and over one passage from the recording. When I asked Mike what he was doing, he told me that his homework from Charlie was to learn only the left hand comping of a particular McCoy Tyner tune. I liked this homework so much that I did the same homework just to check it out.

Jeff BerlinCharlie taught Mike and I an ear training homework where somebody played one, then two, then three, then four (etc.) notes in a chord on a piano and then the other guy had to identify the notes in that chord. Mike and I used to stomp around his apartment physically writhing as we struggled mightily to hear notes that sometimes had no harmonic reason for being in those chords. It was amazing ear training and Mike was terrific at it.

In other homework, Charlie asked me to transcribe, and then play, solos by McCoy Tyner on tunes such as "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" or "Passion Dance." Other early transcriptions consisted of John Coltrane's solo on "My Favorite Things," or Phineas Newborn, Jr.'s solo on the tune "Roughhouse" (for early training in bebop). One memorable homework was to transcribe Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt's solos from the Dizzy Gillespie tune, "The Eternal Triangle." That solo turned out to be a 14 page long effort. I transcribed it in six days (just like God, but without the Heavens and the Earth thrown in). When I showed it to Charlie the next week, he smiled and then told me that my next lesson was to learn it on the bass. This was my lesson for that week, to practice 14 pages of alto and tenor sax solos.

Jeff BerlinCharlie's brilliance was also in his ability of academic creation; he would design original and meaningful academic exercises the likes of which have never been created before. The breadth of variety of lessons and creations that he came up with was prolific. And many of these exercises changed my life. Based on chords, approach notes, and re harmonization, Charlie would give me lessons that some musicians didn't touch upon with other teachers, ever.

Sometimes, my homework assignments bordered on the insane. Huge amounts of transcriptions, hours of practice. They weren't little projects and I asked him why he kept assigning me such seemingly huge amounts of work per week. Charlie squeaked, "Hey Man, if you have ears, then use 'em! A lot of guys don't have your ears, so I don't give them the homework that I give you!" Charlie knew my ear and so he pushed me to the wall and beyond.

Charlie was the one with the brilliant ear. He could listen to anybody, identify their musical weakness and assign the right homework for them to practice. A few years ago, I sent him a quick recording of my bass soloing so that he could make an assessment of my playing. Shortly afterward, he mailed me back a cassette with a piece of music paper with a few lines of music written on it. His message on the cassette went like this: "Hey Jeff! I heard your playing, man! You're playing too horizontal just like Pat Metheny does! You and Pat aren't spelling out the chords. You guys are chromatically playing through the chord changes! You have to play more vertically!" The music that he wrote out for me changed my life. It was a couple of musical lines that were shaped like an arrow pointing up and down, requiring different inversions over different chord types over 12 keys. I spent two months on those two lines of music.

Another time, I sent Charlie another cassette of my playing (Charlie only taught his correspondence students via cassettes). He sent me back his cassette and a piece of music paper without a single note of music written on it. But, it did have red lines on the staff in different lengths, crossing the bar lines, NOT crossing the bar lines, long red lines, short red lines—all unrelated and of various lengths. On the cassette, he explained to me that my phrasing was too two-bars, or one-bar, or four-bars in length. He told me to practice different length phrasing, to break up the length and timbre of my solos to make my solos more interesting. This was just another bit of "Banacos Brilliance," something that, again, changed my musical life forever, and the paper didn't even have a note of music written on it.

In December, I found out that Charlie was sick. I was leaving on a tour with Dennis Chambers, but all I could do was think about Charlie. I found out what hospital he was at and called and spoke to the nurse's station on the floor where Charlie was staying. I spoke to an attendant named Bob and told him that he had one of the greatest musicians who ever lived down the hall. I asked him to stick his head into Charlie's room to pass a message that Jeff Berlin called to say, "NEESH GUACAMOLE!" This was a Mike Stern line, just one of those silly funny things that one comes up with for no particular reason. Charlie loved that goof line and he and I used to say it to each other all the time. Later, I called the hospital back to try to talk to Charlie, and his daughter picked up the phone. At this time, Charlie wasn't taking any personal calls because he felt so bad. But, when he heard that I was on the phone, he told his daughter to tell me that when he got out of the hospital, he wanted to box me. Charlie knew that I loved boxing and we used to clown about that as well.

Jeff BerlinI had real hope that he might lick this thing. So it was a great shock to receive an email that was titled "Funeral Arrangements for Charlie Banacos." I was shaken to my shoes and I still am not steady. The words still are not registering with me. I am so hurt that my good pal had left me. While in Italy, I kept a brave face during the day, but at night in my room, I cried uncontrollably. Charlie was not merely a good teacher who showed me many things. He was the singular reason that I am who I am in music. I owe everything to him and every lesson that he ever taught to me is somewhere in my heart and my mind. They are precious. I will forever miss my dear, dear friend and teacher. What will I do, now that I won't have Charlie around to be the honest assessor of my playing and who knew exactly what to tell me to do to improve it? My loss is everybody's loss who ever knew him or studied with him.

If there is anything good that came out of Charlie's passing, it is that God took Charlie into his embrace and is probably sharing a giggle with him. I know that the Almighty must be smiling enjoying the great kind spirit that Charlie had that touched so many people. Even God must be getting a kick out of hearing Charlie's high Boston tenor voice singing out in Heaven, "NEESH GUACOMOLE!"

Photo Credits

Page 1, Jeff Berlin: Courtesy of Jeff Berlin

Page 1, Charlie Banacos: Courtesy of The estate of Charlie Banacos

Page 2: Courtesy of Bill Bruford

Page 3: Courtesy of Jeff Berlin

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