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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