Friday, December 11, 2009

Charlie Banacos

Yesterday, I was saddened by the news of Charlie Banacos' passing on December 8. I studied with Charlie in the nineties for three or four years; first, in his studio on Abbot St. in Beverly, MA, and then, after moving to New York City, by correspondence. Charlie was one of the most inspiring mentors I've had in my life. His wealth of knowledge, his positive energy, and his humbleness were some of the traits that made him a truly exceptional teacher. Those who wanted to study with him had to sign up on a waiting list that could last from two to five years.

I guess I was lucky because I only waited about one and a half years before getting Charlie's call. Since then, I assiduously studied with him regardless of the fact that, in the beginning, I was a full time college student pursuing a dual major in Composition and Performance. The last summer break before graduating, I had the chance to stay in NYC for a couple of months and even then, I commuted eight hours roundtrip so that I could get my weekly half hour lesson with him. That's the type of mentor Charlie was. Wether you were Mike Stern, Jimmy Earl, or a college senior like myself, it made no difference to him, and he treated you as if you were his best and favorite student.

Charlie was also a treasure trove of stories and anecdotes, both about famous jazz musicians, other students, and teachers around the Boston and New York area. Every time I saw him, he always had some funny or interesting story. For example, one day he told me this story about Miles Davis calling this sax player he knew, because he was looking to start a new band after his hiatus in the late 70s. The sax player, incredulous that Miles Davis would be calling him, hang up on Miles thinking he was some kind of prankster. After a couple of tries Miles miles gave up and that was that. Today, many years after studying with Charlie, I still find myself relaying some of his stories to my own students.

These are some of the reasons why I am so grateful for the years I spent studying with Charlie, and also why his passing is a great loss for the jazz community at large. He was such a dedicated and indefatigable educator that sometimes I wondered if he was burning his candle from both ends. Once, I remember him telling me about how he would wake up every morning at 4 am and write music until 9 am, the time when his first student of the day would show up; from then on, he would teach for the rest of the day, sometimes until 9 or 10 in the evening only to repeat the same routine the following day. When I asked him how many hours of sleep he got on average, he'd say four, five hours at the most. Needless to say, I was amazed by the fact that someone who worked so hard and slept so little could always be so upbeat and energetic every single time I saw him, or every time I heard his voice on the cassette tape we used to exchange once I switched to snail mail lessons.

This positive, upbeat, and restless personality was probably one of the reasons why Charlie's students, including myself, were so fond of him. People would literally travel hours, and sometimes days, in order to study with him, wether it was by car, by train, or by airplane. Not for nothing, Charlie was already a legendary figure within jazz circles during his lifetime, and most of today's up and coming jazz musicians have either studies with him, or with one of his students. Simply because of the sheer number of people that have studied with him over the decades, his legacy is poised to grow exponentially in the years to come. I believe that some day, not so distant into the future, people will remember Charlie Banacos as the man who single handedly revolutionized jazz pedagogy in the 20th century.

Rest in peace, my friend and mentor.

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