Charlie Banacos

Charlie Banacos- The Zen Master of Jazz Improvisation

I never got to say goodbye.  Somewhat like a respected father figure or friendly military drill sergeant, the profound effect that he had on me was unparalleled.   It was a year ago today that my jazz improvisation teacher – Charlie Banacos – passed away after a brutal battle with cancer.  Charlie was only 63 when he died.  His influence on modern music as one of the major jazz educators and improvisation experts of our time is prolific to say the least. 

Many people over the years have asked me what a seemly unknown piano player from Boston could teach a bass guitar player, but the evidence is clear when listening to a stable of former Banacos students that include such stellar bassists as Jeff Berlin, Lincoln Goines, Alain Caron, Bruce Gertz and Jimmy Earl; not to mention other jazz instrumentalists comprised of Mike Stern, Michael Brecker, Jerry Bergonzi and Wayne Krantz just to name a few.  This is a testament of the standard that Banacos worked at and with, and no matter who you were, his mission was to make you a better player.   

He never played favourites, but if you weren’t up for the challenge, you would soon be left behind.  I first came into contact with Charlie after seeing his details on a Jeff Berlin instructional video in 1988.  Banacos was offering “correspondence” lessons where you would receive an explanation of the lesson on a cassette tape (remember those?) along with a sheet of paper with the written music.  In turn, when the assignment was completed I had to record the musical examples and mail it back to him for evaluation.  This process continued on for the next ten years. 

When Charlie first heard my playing, I was already an internationally recognised professional bass player.  I had recorded three solo albums as a jazz fusion artist, recorded and toured with major pop recording artists and written a best selling book on the bass guitar.  After just one listen, he knew exactly what I needed to improve.  In a nutshell, it was a real wake-up call for me, but nevertheless I was prepared to put on the white belt and emptied my cup in order to get as much as I could from this world renowned Zen master of jazz improvisation.

I cannot put into words how challenging these lessons actually were.  I literally logged thousands of hours of practice just to keep up with his pace.  His ability to inspire and humble me simultaneously was fascinating.  I was so hungry, yet the work load took its toll- every time I had finished an assignment it felt like I had gone ten rounds with Tyson.  Yet, the three-prong maxim that I clung to was desire, dedication and determination.  This is what gets you through tough periods in whatever you seek to achieve.  I felt like Rocky (the underdog) each time I had succeeded even when I thought I couldn’t do it anymore.  I remember one occasion when I was feeling a bit sorry for myself and Charlie responded by saying, “Hey, you’re not in Kansas anymore Toto!”  Charlie always had the right answer at the right time.  His timing was impeccable and his sense of humour was laser-sharp. 

I woke up this morning totally unaware that today was the anniversary of Charlie’s untimely death.  It was weird, last night I stayed up late practicing some of the material we were working on just before I had finished studying with him.  I have still not heard any bass players playing these angular ideas.  Every time someone has heard me play these lines they usually comment by saying, “What’s that diminished scale you are playing?” or “Is that a whole-tone thing?”  Charlie completely liberated me from thinking in those terms.  I had ended up with only four hours of sleep- the standard Banacos operating procedure.  He once explained to me how he systematically weaned himself off of sleep so that he could have more time for further research.  Charlie was a one-off; a Bruce Lee of jazz improvisation, always searching for an edge.

For some strange reason I Googled Charlie’s name today and found this interesting article, Charlie Banacos- Recollections of a Legend.  As I started to read the article it revealed the date (December 8, 2009) of his death.  It sent a chill through me as Charlie was really into the metaphysical and had a very close connection with all of his students.   I felt as though I was sensing Charlie’s presence through sound vibration today.

When I first heard the news of his passing last year, it inspired me to start playing again.  Due to professional commitments, I had taken a sabbatical from playing starting in 2005.  I honestly didn’t think that I would ever play again.  Nothing dramatic, I just wasn’t feeling it anymore.  But, after hearing about Charlie, I just couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I had that kept telling me that I had to start playing again.  It was a feeling I couldn’t escape.  Oddly, when I finally gave in and started practicing again in July 2010, it felt as though I had never stopped in the first place.  The wealth of information and musical inspiration that Charlie Banacos has left behind is “no holds barred.”  I wish I could have said goodbye.  Make sure you tell a loved one today just how much they have touched you because when they are gone you won’t have that chance anymore.  I miss you Charlie and thank you for shaping me into what I am today!



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