Category Archives: music

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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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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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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Calling all creative people!

I recently posted this on my Facebook page:

Here are a few questions for my creative friends (writers, musicians, composers, artists, photographers, etc.): What is your creative process? How do you approach your work, day by day? What are your wrk habits? Your frustrations (if any!)? Feel free to be wordy!

artist-painting-on-canvascloseup-of-artist-applying-oil-paint-to-canvas---371656-hcjojkhoI posted it just for fun, but as people began to respond, I found their answers so interesting and varied that I thought I might gather them together for a blog post, or even possibly a book.Hand with pen and music sheet - musical background

So here I am, inviting my readers here to answer these questions, too. Feel free to add anything that’s important to you, and just write your replies in the comment box. Who knows? You might end up in a book!

P.S. I appreciate the “likes” but would really like your comments about your own creative process! Please share!

 

 

 

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Brazil, Rio, and music

OK, so what else do I love about Rio?

The first time I came here was in 1990. I was a journalist at the time, and my writing assignment was to cover Rio’s famous Carnival and do some interviews with Brazilian musicians.Tom+Jobim++Dorival+Caymmi+tom++jobim+2

Even though I had already lived in Brazil for two years back in the late 60s, at that time I was in Porto Alegre and Curitiba, two cities with a European style and influence. They were nice, but I didn’t really feel at home until I spent some time in Rio, where the influences are more African than European. Why is that? Mostly because of the music, samba in particular, and the people who play this music. I almost always found a feeling of real camaraderie and mutual respect among the musicians, rather than a strong sense of competition, and I liked that.0817564

There was nothing I enjoyed more than hanging out in a bar or restaurant where people would sit around a long table, singing and playing. Everyone knew the words to the songs, and there was such a feeling of joy and community…like a family.

In the USA, music is generally thought of as a performance, where some people play and/or sing on a stage and others sit in the audience and listen. Although we have shows and concerts here, too, we also have spontaneous musical “happenings,” which I found to be rare when I lived in the states. Here, even birthday parties usually end up with everyone spontaneously breaking into song, and it’s not unusual for a mini-batucada (percussion) group to warm things up on a public bus.images

Aside from these popular get-togethers, Brazil is famous for its groundbreaking musical geniuses—people like Dorival Caymmi, Tom Jobim, João Gilberto, Hermeto Pascoal and many, many others. I’ve always loved Brazilian music, and am happy to find myself here where I’m surrounded by it. Of course there’s junky music, too, but nothing will ever override the wonderful musical heritage created by these outstanding Brazilian composers and musicians.

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Callings vs. “hobbies”

A fellow friend and blogger wrote a post about writers being a strange breed—exceptionally acute observers, attentive listeners to what’s going on inside their heads (which can make them seemed spaced out to others), and passionate and focused workers once they get started. They can seem obsessed to those who aren’t writers, and each one seems to have his or her own special set of neuroses about getting their stuff out there (i.e. publishing) and even about the old cliché, writers’ block.

I found myself resonating with a lot of what she said—especially the part about getting an inspiration and having to write it down somewhere, anywhere, as if it were a matter of life and death. Any napkin or scrap of paper will do—or even the back of your hand.

The funny thing is, though, that I don’t really think of myself as a “writer” and never have, even though I was a journalist for more than a decade. Now that I’ve got a book for sale on Amazon, I’m trying to get into author mode, but it all feels a little strange to me. Writing is something I do for fun. I don’t find it hard, and it’s not hard, it’s not a struggle, I don’t fight with writers’ block, and I’m not afraid to put my stuff out there. I’m not bragging, this is just the way it is. Let me explain…writing_on_laptop-222x150

Writing isn’t really my calling. I know, I know, you’re probably thinking, well why did you write a book? Why do you write a blog? I guess I could call it a hobby, I don’t know. I’m not really sure what that word means. But I can’t say it’s my calling, because I’ve never felt resistance to doing it, and I never agonize over it.

My calling is music. I’m a composer, and yes, when I get an idea for a tune or a band arrangement in my head, I’ll grab any random piece of paper floating around and frantically try to get it down before I forget it. I used to walk around with a cassette recorder, and now I walk around with a digital one.

I’ve felt resistance to writing music, to getting started on something. Maybe it’s because I take it more seriously that I do with my writing. I knew it was my calling from the time I was 13 years old, and felt inklings in that direction from age 7. Oh, and I’ve also been known to sit around looking like I’m doing nothing, when I’m really deciding whether the low brass should come in before the trumpets, and whether the piece should begin with a percussion intro or not.article-new_ehow_images_a08_2f_jt_write-music-trumpet-800x800

Once I actually sit down and start writing a piece, I am totally fixated. If you’ve read my book, you’ll remember how I used to sit up late every night writing arrangements for my band before I even had a band, and the next morning it was as if “I” hadn’t written them at all—it was as if little elves had stolen into my apartment in the middle of the night, done the work, and left the music stacked up on the piano. I imagined that I could almost see their tiny footprints on the piano top.

But now I have a book, too, so I know I have to treat that with respect. In the piece I wrote the other day about marketing, I said that I’d often felt that self-promotion was “tacky.” I think this is a carry-over from when I used to live in New York and had to go around to the jazz clubs trying to sell myself as a musician. If you didn’t have a manager (and hardly anyone did, except for the big shots), you had to do it yourself, and you were most often met with the cold assertion: “We’re booked through next year.” In spite of that, I persisted and managed to get some fairly good gigs when I lived there, so I know in my heart I can do the same thing with my book.

Here’s a bit of shameless self-promotion!

http://tinyurl.com/ab2rmqh

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/brasstacks

 

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Is anything really lost to the past?

I think it may have started with the photos of old Rio. Someone posted a series of black and white photos from the 1890s to the 1970s, and I found myself looking at them with a dreamy kind of nostalgia, as if I’d been there and was missing it.

But of course I’d never been there. I was born in the USA and came to Rio for the first time in 1990. I think what I was longing for was a sense of tradition, something I’d actually had a taste of when I was involved as a percussionist in Rio’s famous Carnival for more than five years in the early 90s. Amy Anu

I soon discovered that what I’d been missing was a hands-on involvement in Brazilian musical culture. I stopped playing samba a number of years ago, and hadn’t really thought about it much—until now. So I found myself glued to YouTube for several days, watching videos of old-time samba players and wondering if all of that had been lost to me.

Then one evening I started watching what I thought was a video clip of my favorite samba singer, Paulinho da Viola, but which turned out to be a full-length documentary about him. In the film he repeated many times that there’s no reason for nostalgia or longing, because nothing is lost to the past—in fact, it isn’t really in the past at all. “If I take an old song and play it, then it’s now, it’s not in the past,” he said. In fact, the name of the documentary is “My Time is Now.”

With that thought in mind, I downloaded a bunch of sambas to my iPod and pulled out my dusty tamborim (small drum played with a stick) and tam-tam (a hand drum), and tried to play along with some of the tunes. I was amazed at how bad I sounded and how awkward I felt, but I knew it was just from neglect. I took Paulinho’s advice and brought something from my past that I thought was lost, into my present. And now there’s really nothing to stop me from improving it.

As I thought about this experience, I realized that I could apply it to other situations in my life as well. Can you think of a situation from your past that could be “rescued” by bringing it into the present?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-6SMDK-jCo

 

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by | January 11, 2013 · 3:54 pm