Tag Archives: jazz teaching

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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