Charlie Banacos: Recollections of a Legend

Mike Brannon By

Sign in to view read count
"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 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, 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, edified—and back again—and 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 Pérez, 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.

We—those who knew him—are 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.

Jerry Bergonzi

"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 day—like 8 hours—and 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."

Harvie S

"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."

Mike Stern

"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."

Leni Stern


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.