Life-changing teachers #5: Frank Foster

FosI met saxophonist Frank Foster (known as “Fos”) in the 80s at the Jazz Cultural Theater, a performance space founded by pianist Barry Harris. Harris gave classes there, and there were also classes taught by other musicians, including Frank Foster. I used to spend quite a bit of time hanging out there. I liked the vibe—it was funky and casual, and there were usually a couple of strung out musicians stretched out on the raggedy sofas in the entryway.

One day I saw a flyer for a class Frank was giving. It said “If you must scat, be relevant.” Well, that cracked me up and I thought, I have to meet this guy. Of course I knew who he was, and that he had played in and written and arranged for the Basie band, so I cornered him one night and asked him if he was going to give any arranging classes at the JCT. At the time, I had just formed my ten-piece band, Brass Tacks, and was taking a stab at writing some arrangements of my original tunes. But since I had never studied arranging, I really didn’t know how to put anything down on paper, and I needed some practical help.

JCTFrank said yes, as a matter of fact, he was starting an arranging course the following week, so I joined up right away. Everything was fine at first, but then new people kept showing up every week and he’d go back to the beginning and start over. Also, he wasn’t teaching how to get the stuff down on paper, so I grabbed him after class and told him that the class wasn’t working for me and what I needed. He said, “Why don’t you come out to my house and I’ll give you a couple of private lessons.” Well, I was thrilled at the thought of that, because then I could have him all to myself and ask him all of my specific questions.

So that’s what I did. I took the train out to the burbs to Frank’s house and he explained all the tricks of writing a band chart. It only took two lessons. That was the extent of the “course,” but it was all I needed. I actually didn’t want someone to teach me how to arrange—I wanted to learn it by trial and error and follow my nose. After all, I was arranging my own material, not someone else’s, so a lot of the rules wouldn’t apply.

I’m forever grateful to Frank for giving me exactly what I wanted. I felt it was very generous and humble of him. I went on to write a bunch of material for my band, and we played some gigs around New York, including The Blue Note (back when they would let “unknowns” play on Monday nights), and The Knitting Factory.

I kept in touch with Frank, so he knew what I was up to. When I recorded a demo tape of the band I gave him a copy. I was deliriously happy when he told me how much he liked it.

I was working as a journalist when Frank won one of his Grammy awards, and was sitting in the press room when he came out on stage to make his little speech. He saw me sitting with the other journalists, held up his award, pointed at me, and mouthed: “You’re next!” Well, that never happened, but I was thrilled by his vote of confidence.

Years later, after I had moved to Rio de Janeiro and we had been out of touch for a long time, Frank and I met up on Facebook. We had some great chats, and he had me in stitches a lot of the time. Not long after, he passed away. What a great guy. I sure do miss you, Fos.

About Frank:

Frank Foster (September 23, 1928 – July 26, 2011) was an American tenor and soprano saxophonist, flautist, arranger, and composer. he joined Count Basie’s band in 1953, and contributed both arrangements and original compositions to the band, including the standard “Shiny Stockings”, and other popular songs such as “Down for the Count,” and “Blues Backstage.” Later on, Foster formed and led several groups, most notably Living Color and The Loud Minority. In June 1986 Foster succeeded Thad Jones as leader of the Count Basie Orchestra. While leading the Basie Orchestra, Foster received two Grammy Awards.

 

 

 

 

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Life-changing teachers #4: Charlie Banacos

Charlie

Charlie with my friend Joan Hill

I am struggling to find words to describe the remarkable teacher and individual that Charlie Banacos was. Let me try.

I can’t remember how I first heard of Charlie, but it must have been from some musician I knew who had studied with him. I soon discovered that his students spoke of him in almost reverential tones, and that he had a two-year waiting list to study with him.

At that time, in the middle 70s, Charlie was teaching in a studio in Brookline, MA, not far from where I lived. He arrived at his studio early in the morning and taught all day long, every day. When I met him, he was no longer performing, and even though he was an accomplished pianist, he had no interest in putting his work “out there.” Teaching was his mission.

I got on Charlie’s waiting list, and eventually rose to the top of it. I called him and set up a class. I took the trolley to Brookline and knocked on the door to his studio. The door opened, and there was Charlie—younger than I had expected, wiry, with dark hair and eyes that sparkled with amusement and an intense energy that I could feel before he said a word. I felt at home right away. Little did I suspect what he would put me through!

Charlie treated all his students as individuals, so after listening to me play, he gave me what he thought would help me the most. We started out with exercises on “Autumn Leaves” that took me through 12 keys and every possible chordal and scale combination. And that was just the beginning—before long he had me transcribing complex solos by jazz greats like McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans. I worked as hard as I could so I could hear him say, “That stuff is cookin’!”

Even though Charlie was always affable, very funny, and almost childlike, he meant business. I had to practice five hours a day to be able to go to class and not make a total fool out of myself. I couldn’t help laughing, though, when I’d sit down at his old upright piano to show him how I’d done that week. He’d stand over me with a hammer in one hand and a screw driver in the other, with a fiendish grin on his face!

All of Charlie’s lessons were handwritten, and he’d punctuate his almost illegible writing with humorous cartoons. I was always dumbfounded by how he could be so funny, open, and relaxed with everyone and still command so much respect. I guess it gets down to the fact that he was simply a genius, and I don’t use that word lightly.

Charlie died way too young, and left countless students who genuinely loved him, including me, in mourning. What a great spirit he was!

Here’s a video clip of Charlie speaking, from his student Dave Askren. Thanks, Dave!

About Charlie:

Charlie Banacos (August 11, 1946 – December 8, 2009) was a pianist, composer, author and educator, who focused on jazz. He was the original author of a number of original music theory and ear training methods. His students and musical associates included Mike Stern, Danilo Perez, Jeff Berlin, Garry Dial, Michael Brecker, Jerry Bergonzi, Marilyn Crispell, among others. He performed with Roy Haynes, Charlie Mariano, Jerry Bergonzi and others in both jazz and classical idioms. He served on the faculty of New England Conservatory of Music and Berklee College of Music in Boston.

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Life-changing teachers #3: Ray Santisi

RayI was living in Boston in the 60s and 70s (except for two years in Brazil in the late 60s). I don’t remember exactly when or how I first met jazz pianist Ray Santisi, although it was probably at what was then known as Berklee School of Music, where he was teaching. I didn’t have the financial wherewithal to enroll, so I would go over there and hang around, hoping to get to know some musicians or find a jam session.

In any case the upshot of it was that I met Ray, and after I got to know him, for some reason unknown to me, he took me on as a piano student and never charged me a cent. He also encouraged me to write a few of little arrangements, and then had his students play them back for me. Not only that, but he saw to it that I could get into the Boston jazz clubs without paying a cover charge.

Ray had a reputation for being a bit intimidating, and even though I was easily intimidated back in those days, my hunger for jazz and to get what this remarkable man had to offer won out. I’m glad it did. When I first started studying with Ray, my piano playing was pretty basic—tunes from fake books, simple improvisations, playing in the “easy” keys. He helped me take a step forward, with different kinds of songs, and music theory that attuned my ears and fingers to more possibilities in improvising.

Most of all, though, I was absolutely stunned by Ray’s generosity. I was just a young housewife and mom, and felt that I was a mediocre pianist, but apparently Ray saw something there that he thought was worthwhile. I ended up learning a lot with him, and we also had fun together. He had a subtle, wry sense of humor that used to crack me up.

Many years later, long after I had moved from Boston and finally ended up here in Rio de Janeiro, I looked him up and sent him a copy of the CD I had recorded here in 2002. He was very pleased to hear from me, and congratulated me on the CD. He was one of the key figures who made it possible for me to finally put a band together and record, and I’m forever grateful.

About Ray:

Ray Santisi (February 1, 1933 – October 28, 2014) was an American jazz pianist, composer, arranger, recording artist and educator. He played with Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Mel Torme, Carol Sloane, and many others. Santisi was professor of piano and harmony at Berklee College of Music in Boston where he taught from 1957 until his death in 2014. His students included names such as Diana Krall, Makoto Ozone, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett, Gary Burton, John Hicks, and Danilo Perez. Fourteen of his students received Grammy awards.

 

 

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Life-changing teacher #2: Sam Rivers

SamSam Rivers wasn’t my teacher in any “official” sense of the word. The great saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist simply glided into my young life with a proposal.

I was 20 years old and a jazz pianist. At the time, I was living with my husband and baby daughter in a loft on Columbus Avenue in Boston’s South End. Word had gotten out about the jam sessions I was holding at the loft, and musicians like saxophonist Bayard Lancaster and pianist Keith Jarrett (who was just a teenager at the time), started coming by to play. I had a wonderful Chickering baby grand piano, which was definitely a draw. We mostly played far out weird free bag stuff, and that’s when Sam Rivers came into the picture. Sam, who died at the age of 88 in 2012 while still performing actively with his Rivbea Orchestra in Florida, was the grandpappy of avant-garde jazz, and took all of us local jazz musicians under his wing.

He had a proposal: to get a “little thing” going at a club in Roxbury. So we’d all traipse over there once a week to do an impromptu jam session. Sam never cared who showed up, or how many, he’d always make something out of it. Sometimes there were two bass players, or two drummers, or no drummer, or no horns and three piano players, but he’d always get something musical happening. He’d make up a little phrase and maybe add a chord or two and then he’d have us all play it together. Then he’d just let us develop on that bare bones structure. Sometimes we’d take solos, and other times we’d all play together, developing and expanding on the motif Sam had given us. Usually it would start out like a mess, but with Sam guiding us it would occasionally develop into something really exciting.

Sam was teaching us how to listen. He said you have to listen to the other players, not just yourself, especially when the music is free. In other words, the structure had to extend to the musicians themselves—it wasn’t just about the notes. We had to learn how to be our own structure, responding to each other, playing off each other, building on each others’ ideas. There had to be a sense of brotherhood.

That simple wisdom I learned from Sam has remained with me to this day. And even though I never became a free jazz player, I later discovered that the concept tended to pop up in my compositions and lent them contrast and excitement, even humor. It also ended up affecting every area of my life.

Years later, after an extended period of not playing at all, I ran into Sam in New York. I told him I wasn’t playing, and he gave me a look that was filled with both intensity and kindness and said, “You HAVE to play.” I took that to heart and never forgot it.

About Sam:

Samuel Rivers (September 25, 1923 – December 26, 2011) was an American jazz musician and composer. He played tenor and soprano and saxophones, bass clarinet, flute, harmonica, and piano. Active in jazz since the early 1950s, he gained wider attention during the mid-1960s free jazz loft scene. Sam had a thorough command of music theory, orchestration and composition, and made numerous recordings both as side man and leader. Over the years, Sam played with many jazz greats, such as Cecil Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Archie Shepp, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, and Sarah Vaughan.

 

 

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Life-changing teacher #1: Emily Brady

EmilyIn my previous post, I said that I would write about six teachers who had changed my life. I’m going to do this in chronological  order, and this is the first one (the only one still living):

I was barely 18 years old when I entered Boston University as a liberal arts major. At that time I rather pretentiously thought of myself as smarter than most people, and quite the little intellectual. I had read widely, and English was my favorite subject.

Imagine my chagrin when I arrived in Boston (from Connecticut, where I grew up) to discover that I had been placed in the “dummy” English class! I was furious, so with more feistiness than trepidation, I stomped over to the office of the head of the English Department, Professor Link, and stated my case. I told him I wouldn’t, couldn’t stay in that class! He looked slightly amused, checked my records, and said, “But you did poorly on your entrance exams.” I’ve never been particularly good under pressure, so I told him, “Yes, but did anyone even bother to look at my straight A record in English in high school?” Professor Link could see that I wasn’t going to back down easily, so he said, “All right, I’ll have you switched to Emily Brady’s advanced English class.”

I left his office with a feeling of triumph and exhilaration. I couldn’t wait to start Mrs. Brady’s class.

Nothing, however, had prepared me for the tall, willowy goddess who swept into the classroom sporting a long black cape and dark brown eyes as big as saucers. She was gorgeous—black hair in a bob with bangs, and a smile that lit up the room to the last student in the back row. All the boys developed instant crushes on her, and I guess I did, too. She was quite the dramatic figure, and I loved that she drove around in a dumpy woodie station wagon.

Emily immediately put us to work reading important novels by authors I had never heard of, and having us write essays about them. This was right up my alley. I became and avid student, and did everything I could to please Emily and make her see how smart I was. She noticed, and gave me the attention I had longed for during high school, but never got. She encouraged me, said I had talent as a writer, and even urged me to send some of my pieces to a few literary journals. I did, and was thrilled when I finally got a personal, rather than an automatic rejection letter that was kind and encouraging.

Never particularly self-confident (although I did a pretty good job at faking it), with Emily’s care, attention, friendship, and engaging sense of humor, I could feel a true sense of worth growing in me. I truly came to feel that I was a writer because of her. I only studied with her for that one year, but we ended up becoming friends. I’m a jazz pianist, and she used to come to my gigs. Even after I got married and had my first child, our friendship continued. I have never forgotten her, and a few years ago was able to find her online. She was (and is) still teaching at B.U. I wasn’t sure if she’d remember me, but she did, and was surprised and pleased that I had contacted her. During the time I knew her she had remarried, had a child, and then her husband suddenly died of a heart attack. After that we lost touch, and at some point she married again and became Emily Dalgarno, the name she still uses today. When I contacted her, she told me she was now single again and had never been happier.

About Emily:

Emily Izsak Dalgarno (formerly Brady) graduated Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude in English, and has an international reputation as a teacher and scholar. After graduating from William Smith she attended Brown University, and in 1962 completed her Ph.D. in English literature. 

Since 1959 she has taught thousands of students in a variety of courses in literature at Boston University and has published in numerous literary magazines. She has written two books on Virginia Woolf: Virginia Woolf and the Visible World and Virginia Woolf and the Migrations of Language.

Next: Sam Rivers

 

 

 

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Teachers who are life-changers

 

Learning-FeaturedMost of us have had at least one teacher in our lives who has left a lasting impression. I’m going to devote my next six blog posts to the teachers I feel really changed my life in a significant way.

Sometimes we encounter a teacher we love while we’re still in grammar school, but we can also meet up with a life-changer in our adult lives. I met most of my favorite teachers when I was already grown up, married, and a mother.

World Teachers’ Day isn’t until October 5, but I like to strike while the iron is hot…I started thinking about my beloved teachers yesterday, and so let the commemoration begin!

I have six favorite teachers in my life. I’m not sure how fast I’ll be able to get them posted, but stay tuned…

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Do You Dare?

The whole universe is filled with Love…no…

More than that.

The absolute entirety of infinite immensity is Love itself.

Do you doubt this?

Do your eyes and ears tell you something else?

Eyes and ears know nothing of this endless wonder…

How could they? Can finity comprehend infinity?

The senses are bombarded by shock and horror every day,

So it seems…

But what are the senses?

Should we believe them?

Do you dare challenge them?

Go ahead, challenge them!

You’ve nothing to lose, to be sure,

And everything to gain.

The vastness, glory, unspeakable joy that is,

And that you are.

Yes, this magnificent immensity of Love

Is what you are, ever have been,

And ever will be.

Do you dare?

Universe-HD-2

 

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