I recently came across some sad music news. Charlie Banacos, one of the preeminent jazz instructors of the last several decades, died on December 8, 2009. As the obit notes, Charlie’s students included Danilo Perez, Mike Stern, Wayne Krantz, Michael Brecker, Jerry Bergonzi, and scores of others.

He also taught me for a while in 1998. I remember when my first piano teacher, Gary Ford, was taking lessons from Charlie back in the 80s. Gary, despite suffering from repetitive stress issues brought on by the 6 or more hours a day of practice it took him to work through Charlie’s exercises, could not say enough amazing things about Charlie’s teaching. Later, when I was studying in Paris in 1994, Gary recommended that I look up Katy Roberts, another former Banacos student, who also sang Charlie’s praises and continued my two-steps-of-separation Banacos-influenced training. Finally, that same year, I was rooming with Aaron Goldberg, who was also taking lessons with Charlie at that time. One day, Charlie called looking for Aaron and I decided to take the plunge, signing up for his waiting list myself.

Weeks went by, then months, then years. I moved several times and figured that Charlie either had had no way to contact me or, because of the informal way I “signed up” for the waiting list, had never put me in the queue. Silly me. In early ’98, I got a call from Charlie asking when I could come in for my first lesson. He seemed to remember our conversation well, including our chatting about my other teachers, Paris, etc.–in fact, in all respects it was as if four days, not four years, had gone by since we had last spoken. Thinking back on it, I’m still not sure how he managed to get my then-current number.

So I ended up studying with Charlie in the spring and summer of ’98, practicing to the point where the exercises tormented me even in my sleep, until I left for Philadelphia and law school. Charlie gave me some exercises for the road and told me to give him a call when I was back in Boston and ready for more lessons. But little did I know it was a fork-in-the-road kind of moment. I never went back to Boston. In fact, I barely played piano at all for several years and since I started playing again it’s been pretty much all rock (of one sort or another) all the time. I can comfortably say that law is much more my calling than jazz ever was, but I would have loved to study with Charlie again. I particularly regret not pursuing his “distance learning” program when I read about it a few years ago. This was no internet-based lesson plan–as I understand it, it involved Charlie creating and mailing tapes and written materials by snail mail. A pretty unique method for a one-of-a kind sort of guy.

It seems that a lot of people who knew Charlie a lot better than I have written about him elsewhere on the internets–Warren Senders at Daily Kos has a nice piece up with some links. But I particularly liked this one passage, taken from a post by Charlie’s family on the Charlie Banacos students Facebook page–it just seems so consistent with the bit that I came to know about him in my own experience and through my teachers and friends:

You should know that Charlie was of strong mind and in good spirits throughout his ordeal, and kept an unwavering positive attitude during the past few weeks. More than a few of the doctors and nurses commented on how much they enjoyed treating Charlie, for he was always quick with a joke and was determined to live each moment in a positive way.

[….]

The most negative thing he said over the last few weeks was ‘What a drag!’ When the doctor told him his diagnosis he said “Good job with your diagnosis. Looks like I’m headed for the last round-up!” The doctor looked at him, after seeing Charlie in pain for a week already without it ever affecting his emotional strength, and said “Charlie, you’re a very strange man.”

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