It’s been almost a month since the passing of Charlie Banacos. I’ve wanted to get my thoughts and feelings down for quite some time now, but honestly how do you sum up Charlie in a blog and make people understand who he was and what he meant to his students. Charlie was arguably the best jazz educator in the world. People waited for years to gain entry into that tiny Beverly, MA studio for the knowledge that would change their lives. Yes, he fine tuned our improvisational and technical skills. Yes, he honed our hearing to the point where others thought we had super powers. Yes, he answered every question we had about the world of music. Why then is it so difficult to express his legacy. I believe it’s because Charlie was about much more.
To Charlie music was not entertainment. If you are a musician or not, let that sink in for a second. Music is not entertainment. We all know of course that in the world of commerce it is. I live in Nashville, TN. I see music as entertainment everyday. Thousands of musicians fighting tooth and nail for road gigs, sessions, placing the song that they just know is a number one hit. I’m immersed in this scene ever day, yet the most satisfying musical moments in my life were spent in Charlie’s studio playing duets. A friend of mine and student of Charlie’s once asked him why he didn’t play live engagements anymore. Charlie looked at him seriously(which if you knew hes jovial nature was very rare) and said “They don’t deserve me. They don’t deserve you either.” I’ve thought about that statement a lot. Who is the “they” in that sentence. Club managers, booking agents, label executives, publishing companies? I personally believe he meant anyone who doesn’t respect music enough to really “hear” and “feel” what it’s all about.
So what is it all about you ask? Charlie’s last words to his students were sent along in an email shortly before his death. They were as follows. “It’s nice to see real musicians that do music for music’s sake.” ”..Music’s sake.” Those words hit me very strongly. He could have said something about “the art of” music but he didn’t choose those words. He chose “..Music’s sake.” As in an entity. As in a living, breathing thing. As a working musician I have seen a few notes change some body’s mood and outlook completely. I know many of you can attest to that. Whether you’re playing a club or a concert hall, musicians feel the symbiotic relationship between ourselves and the audience all the time. Music my friends is about our humanity and our spirit in one. It’s about our essence and our connection to everything around us. Charlie knew this and I think he knew more. Charlie wrote that when he was in the hospital he passed the time by identifying all the notes that he heard around him. He said he was “swimming around in a pool of B Dom7.” After 5 years of studying with him I was hearing an ambulance siren sing out the note Bb while at the same time the wind was howling an F. The man begging for change was jingling his cup to an F#. It was all around me. It’s there when my student’s eyes light up with excitement. It’s there when I play a jazz solo and hear the aficionado clap. Ironically its even there when I am using it for entertainment and the truck driver shakes his fist in the air to an AC/DC song and sings out of tune. It’s all connected. Music connects us to each other and the universe we’re a part of.
Am I sounding a little eastern or Zen-like? Maybe. But I believe this was big part of what Charlie knew in his heart. When I was in my twenties and barely out of music school, I sat in Larry Coryell’s living room and played ”All The Things You Are with him. It was the first time I met him and I was scared to death. After playing together he says to me, “You sound good man. You know all the right stuff. You just have to develop as a human.” I never knew what he meant by that until Charlie. To my musician friends: Never forget that we wield a great power when we approach our instrument. As professionals we’ll always be forced into the world of entertainment and business. But I challenge you all, including myself to pass on the Banacos legacy through your teaching, your playing, your humanity, and your spirit.