Category Archives: jazz

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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Hoofin’

This is part of a chapter from my book, Getting Down to Brass Tacks – My Adventures in Jazz, Rio, and Beyond:

Leon Collins

Leon Collins

I was still unhappy with my piano playing. I’d had a few gigs off and on since I had quit the Top of the Hub, but I felt there was something wrong with my sense of time. It wasn’t swinging the way I wanted it to. Charlie Banacos had showed me some methods to get my lines to sound more swinging, but I felt it wasn’t just my hands and arms that were the problem (and I’m sure he knew that, too)—it was my whole body and the way I felt about it. I’d never been particularly graceful, not good at sports, and not much of a dancer, either. One night Mad, Hil and I were watching TV and the Nicholas Brothers were on.

“Look at the way they move,” I said. “If that isn’t jazz in motion I don’t know what is.” The girls were fascinated, too, especially with the way they tapped up and down the stairs. I’d seen lots of tap dancers on TV, of course, like Shirley Temple and Gene Kelly, but there was something different about the way these guys danced. I wanted to find out what it was that gave them that fluid, relaxed, hip way of moving, so I decided to find myself a tap dance teacher. I really thought it might help me with my piano playing.

I knew I didn’t want one of those Broadway types that flailed their arms around and made big dramatic sweeps across the floor, so I asked around and someone mentioned Leon Collins. They said he was one of the old-time “hoofers” like Honi Coles and the Nicholas Brothers and the Copasetics, so if I wanted to learn the real deal, I should look him up. It turned out that Leon was giving tap lessons in a studio not far from the Monitor newsroom, and his classes were all jammed, mostly with white women. I signed up, and got Mad and Hil into classes, too. Now we were the tap family.

Leon was skinny as a toothpick and loose as a mop, with a big, toothy smile, and he loved his “girls”—many of whom were well past middle age. He also played the guitar and sang a little, and was a walking jazz machine. There was always a tune running around in his head, accompanied by some new tap step he could fit with it.

Before long, Leon and I were having long conversations about music, and I’d stay after class to show him something on the piano or watch him work out an improvised line on the guitar. I turned him on to some tunes he’d never danced to, like Randy Weston’s jazz waltz “Little Niles” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” both which became part of his regular show repertoire. Leon was wide open to new ideas, and even made up some tap routines to a couple of classical pieces.

I enjoyed the tap classes and they really did help me with my rhythm, both on the piano and in general. But the best thing that came out of my association with Leon was that he asked me to be his musical director. This is how I came to be involved with many, many tap dancers over the years and be known as the “tap dancers’ piano player.” I got to know Chuck Green of Chuck and Chuckles, James “Buster” Brown, Leslie “Bubba” Gains and Charles “Cookie” Cook of the Copasetics, Bunny Briggs (who had danced with Duke Ellington), Jimmy Slyde, Sandman Simms, and then later on Greg Hines and Savion Glover.

The older tappers were all Leon’s contemporaries and colleagues, and I even got to play with some of them, because of Leon. Once he took me to a jazz club in Harlem and Chuck Green was there. I sat in to play for him, and he danced in his socks! Everyone kept shushing me so they could “hear” his steps…shh, shh, softer, softer!

To buy the book: http://goo.gl/OfdMd7

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MY INTERVIEW WITH MILES DAVIS (1986)

6a00d8347993c469e20133f38c455f970bOne day in 1986, when I was working as a music writer for The Christian Science Monitor, I got a call from a representative at Channel 13, New York’s PBS station. He told me that PBS was going to do a Great Performances special and they would like it to be covered by the Monitor.

“You’ll be interviewing Miles Davis,” he said. MILES DAVIS?!! Omigod! I’m gonna meet MILES!! I was flabbergasted, not just because I was actually going to get to meet the man himself, but because I’d heard that Miles never talked to anyone. The PBS guy went on: “You’re to pick up Miles at his apartment on Fifth Avenue and then take him to lunch at the Carlyle Hotel. We’ll send along one of our PR people to go with you. We’ll pick you up on Thursday at 3 p.m.”

OK, I thought. OK, yippee! I’m gonna meet MILES!!

On Thursday a black stretch limo came to pick me up at 3 p.m. on the nose. Angela, the PR rep, was sitting in the back when I climbed in. She was black, classy and no-nonsense. She said, “Listen, Miles will probably give us a hard time, so be prepared.”

I nodded, and guessed that she’d already been through this with some other reporters. The limo driver dropped us off in front of Miles’ building. We spoke to the doorman and told him who we were. He rang up Miles, who said there was no way in hell he was going to do any damned interview.

Angela grabbed the phone from the doorman. “Listen Miles. This is the time we set up and you agreed to it.”images

I couldn’t hear what Miles was saying on the other end, but whatever it was, it took a long time. Angela looked at me and rolled her eyes.

Finally she said, “OK, OK, Miles, we’ll set it up for another day,” and handed the phone back to the doorman, who smirked.

Angela said she’d call the limo back, but I told her I’d take the subway home. She said she’d phone me to set up a new date. I knew they had to get Miles to cooperate for the TV special, so I went home and waited for her call.

And call she did, the very next day, so we trekked back over to Miles’ place. This time we actually made it up the elevator. Angela knocked on the door. Miles opened it with the chain on and peered out.

“No,” he said.

“What?!” said Angela.

“I said no. No interview.”

Angela put her nose about an inch from his and said, “Listen Miles, you’re fuckin’ with my job. I don’t fuck with your job, so what makes you think you can fuck with mine?”

Miles opened the door.

“OK, you got twenty minutes,” he barked in a gravelly baritone.

hqdefaultMiles was married to Cicely Tyson at that time, and their apartment was a big, open, sprawling, multilevel affair covered with gray carpeting. Cicely was out of town. All around the walls there were clothes racks. Miles’ clothes, which he fondly referred to as “my shit,” were hanging on them. These were the many imported outfits he’d had custom made by famous designers from around the world, and he didn’t want to keep them hidden away in any closets. They were on display for all to see, with a big full-length mirror in the middle. I remember when Miles’ album “Tutu” had been released a few months before, with a killer close-up of only his face, Miles’ disgruntled comment to the press was “It doesn’t show my shit.”

Angela and I walked in, and I pulled out my tape recorder.

“Ohhh,” groaned Miles when he saw it. I sat down next to him on the sofa and pulled out the mike. He moved back, then got up and walked away. I looked at Angela. She walked over to Miles’ clothes racks and started poking through his clothes.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Miles, perking up a little.

Miles was a style man. When all the other guys his age were still carrying the torch around the arena one more time playing bebop and standards, Miles was forging ahead, setting up rock rhythm sections behind his horn and wearing satin jackets and sequined pants on stage. Even though his trumpet playing never changed much, he still liked to inject it into new settings.

As jazz singer Eddie Jefferson sang in his lyric to Miles’ tune “So What”:

“About the clothes he wears…

his style is in the future…”

Miles was anything but old hat. He said:

“If you’re not keepin’ up with the times, you end up with ‘bell-bottom music.'” He beckoned to me to join him and Angela as they took a closer look at his wardrobe. His jackets and coats were made from exquisite fabrics and leathers, things trimmed with peacock feathers, shimmering with silver and gold threads or sparkling with tiny reflective black studs. He insisted that Angela and I try some things on. I picked a Japanese black suede coat painted with white designs.

“Shit, that looks almost as good on you as it does on me.” Miles hoisted up his baggy printed pants around his skinny waist. I was having a ball, but was starting to worry about the interview that I was supposed to be gathering for my editor. I knew I’d never get Miles to sit down and talk into the dumb tape recorder, so I said:

“Miles, I have a ten-piece band with a similar format to Birth of the Cool.” It just slipped out, because I didn’t know what else to say, and I wanted to make some kind of connection with him. Bingo. Miles smiled broadly, and said:

“Yeah, Birth of the Cool, really?”

Birth of the Cool, for those who may not know, was the nine-piece band Miles put together and recorded in 1949-50. It was, along with Gerry Mulligan’s Tentette, one of the bands I’d most admired when I was a kid, and was undoubtedly one of the things that led me to my forming my own mini big band many years later. Miles grabbed my hand and dragged me over to his Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, which was set up alongside the clothes racks where Angela was still busy trying things on.

“Do you wanna take a lesson?” he laughed. He played some chords, and then asked me to play a couple of my tunes. In an instant we turned from an uptight journalist grilling a famous legendary jazz trumpeter into just two musicians swapping ideas. Now that Miles was relaxed and feeling good, I said sheepishly, “Hey Miles, we were supposed to talk about the TV show, remember?”

“I haven’t seen it yet,” said Miles. “I don’t know how the idea came up. They asked me to do it. I probably won’t like it.”

“Why’s that, Miles?”

“Because what you see yourself doin’ doesn’t look the same as you think you look…you know what I mean? I’m not so sure I want to see it right away.”

Actually, when I got a chance to preview the show the next day, I was happy to see Miles looking quite fit, sipping mineral water and eating sugar free candies. His bout a decade before with various health problems, as well as injuries from a car accident, had kept him out of music for more than five years. I asked him about it in our “interview.”

“I was sick,” said Miles. “I was an alcoholic. I used a lot of coke. If I had kept on playin’ I’d be dead.” He told me he hadn’t thought about his music at all during that period, that he’d put it out of his mind, which reminded me of some years before when I’d stopped playing myself and didn’t even listen to music. When he finally did come back, though, he was ready for a fresh, new approach. But some of his fans, and even his colleagues, complained. They wanted the old Miles, the Kind of Blue and Seven Steps to Heaven Miles back again.

“It’s like clothes,” he said, pointing at the racks around the room. “Some people look wrong in these new clothes,” he said. “Music is the same way. I play styles. If it’s reggae, I play reggae. If it’s calypso, I play calypso—I don’t play the blues when I play ‘My Funny Valentine.’ When you play styles, you’ll always be up to date, but…I won’t force one style on top of another style. It’s like wearing a sweater over a tuxedo.”

I was intrigued by these remarks since, to me, his trumpet style hadn’t really changed. But when I stopped to think about it, everything he played fit in perfectly with the backgrounds he chose.

Then he stood up and said, “Look, musicians feel like they haven’t done anything if they don’t feel that ‘yes!’ when they play. That happens when you play off each other.”

Then he waxed philosophical and mused about whether some day it might be possible, by some electronic invention, to extract music from the air, music that had been played at some time in the past but had never been recorded.

“It’s out there somewhere,” he said, scratching his chin.

“How’re your chops, Miles?” I asked, wondering how he’d managed to make his comeback so quickly.

“I’ve finally got my tone back,” he said. “I sometimes hit a high note, but I don’t hit it like a trumpet player who plays high notes—I hit it like ptew!—like that, like a gun.”

He looked at his watch. Over two hours had gone by since Angela and I arrived.

“OK, your twenty minutes are up,” he growled. Then he smiled and kissed me and Angela on the cheek, and we were off. I was much happier with our casual chat than I would have been with a formal interview, and I wrote it up pretty much the way it went down, except for his frequent use of the S-word.

“Wow, I just met Miles Davis!” I thought, grinning from ear to ear.

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Goodbye, Ornette

ornette-coleman-4e43f9dcc3eb2Every day we see death notices on Facebook of our favorite artists, actors, musicians, and so on. I’ve gotten so accustomed to seeing those familiar “RIPs” that I barely give them a second thought. People die…life goes on…

Today, however, I opened my Facebook and saw that Ornette Coleman had left us. I burst into tears. It surprised me. I thought, “Wow, what brought that on?”

Ornette was more than just another musician to me. He was an intrinsic part of all of my own musical development for decades. He was much more than a groundbreaking alto saxophonist who played a plastic sax. He took jazz themes and moods that weren’t really unfamiliar and managed to transmute them into something none of us had ever imagined. To call him “avant-garde” isn’t quite accurate. In a way, Ornette was mainstream. The blues permeated his work, and he wasn’t really “out there” in the sense of no melody, no form. But he took the music into another realm—a place of wild freedom and sassy childlike innocence.

I remember distinctly when his albums “The Shape of Jazz to Come” and “Change of the Century” appeared in my world. I was part of a little coterie of very young jazz musicians in Boston. We considered ourselves part of the avant-garde. But when we heard those albums, with their disarming simplicity and yet mind-blowing innovativeness, it took our breath away. Those two albums in particular still take my breath away.

I’m not going to write a bio of Ornette—you can easily find that online if you’re not familiar with his work. I just wanted to express my unending admiration today for a man who knew who he was, stuck to his vision, and enriched everyone who had ears to hear what he was saying.

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PURSUING OR ALLOWING?

downloadIn her book Dying To Be Me Anita Moorjani (of the famous NDE and healing of cancer) talks a lot about pursuing vs. allowing. She says that after her NDE experience, she no longer felt that she had to pursue goals, that it was more a question of allowing things to come to her…to happen naturally.

There’s a lot of wisdom in that thought. In my own life, I’ve found that even when we get the thing we think we want, often there’s no lasting satisfaction. I see people on Facebook (and I do this myself as well) busily promoting themselves, whether it’s their art, their music, their book…whatever, usually with little results. But some people do seem to make it “work”—I’ve seen several friends hold successful Kickstarter campaigns, meaning that they got the money they were asking for.

It seems that it’s a question of how we think and where were are in life that makes us either pursue or allow. I can’t sit in judgment and say one is better than the other. I believe that we do what is right for us at any given moment. It may not be right for someone else, and it may not even be right for us after some time has passed. From my own experience I’ve found that the “pushing, pulling, wishing, and wanting” approach has eventually led to frustration and limitation for me.

Last night I watched a video on YouTube by jazz pianist/educator Dave Frank entitled “How Artists and Content Creators Can Survive in the era of Free Content,” where he discussed the current trend of people downloading music for free on the internet. In his view, this new trend is more about people sharing than it is about money, so, as he said in the video, “…there is an expectation that you’ll share some stuff for free, to be part of the global conversation that’s going on.” Then he said that each one, individually, then decides how to get some payback…but…he himself simply decided to give it all away, to share it as much as possible. He said that the spiritual principle he based his choice on is: “If you serve, you will be served,” and that this principle works just like mathematics. “So what that means,” he said, “is that you put your heart and soul out there to people and try to share something that will be of benefit to them, and then what you need will come back to you.” And he wasn’t just “whistlin’ Dixie,” as they say, because he eventually began to receive compensation for his offerings.

I like his approach. To me there’s something very freeing about it. It follows Anita Moorjani’s prescription of allowing instead of pursuing, and I honestly do believe that there is a law as accurate as mathematics that governs these things.

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