The Harmonics of Intensive Care: Charlie Banacos, R.I.P.

One of the country’s greatest music teachers died yesterday. Charlie Banacos taught jazz theory and ear-training for decades from his Massachusetts home; his students include many of the most famous names in jazz music.

His students have performed or recorded with Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Maynard Ferguson, Chick Corea, Wynton Marsalis, David Liebman, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker and Joe Henderson, among others.


I never studied with Charlie, although many friends and colleagues did. Most importantly for me, the man who taught me most of what I know about jazz was a long-time student of his, so although we never met, I am part of his pedagogical lineage.

But that’s not what this post is about. When I heard about Charlie’s death (through a post on Facebook) I went to the “Charlie Banacos Students” FB page to learn more. And there I read a post called “Email from Charlie.”

Charlie went into the hospital in late November, thinking he had pneumonia, only to be told that the doctors had discovered he had cancer in an advanced stage. He notes that he’s largely immobilized (because he’s got a lot of tubes and attachments), and comments that some of the breathing techniques he’s learned are helpful in mitigating pain.

Then, ever a teacher, he offers a musician’s take on his situation, in two of the most extraordinary paragraphs I have ever read:

Another great way to practice when you can’t move around too much is figure out the chord or chords that you hear in the hospital and use that to practice different sonorities. I’ll give you an example of what’s happening right now: most of the electronic sounds of this hospital at this moment are B’s, D#’s, F#’s and A-naturals. Now there are other sounds, but those are the pre-dominant sounds coming from the electronic equipment (and people yelling “Code Red!!!” Just kidding…) So you could say right at this moment I’m swimming around in a pool of Bdom7. If you use that as a basis, the next time you hear somebody yell “code” you can practice and name its function against the B7 chord as quickly as possible and it makes a type of symphony.

For example, let’s say someone says “saline” and you notice that they said it on E and G, you would say to yourself “sa” is 4 and “line” is flat-6. Let’s say you hear a nurse say “stat” and it just happens to be an F, you might say “Oh, that was #4 (or flat-5)”. This way you can do this all day long and have a mini symphony going on. I hope you never have to use this kind of exercise in this type of situation, but it works everywhere – in diners, supermarkets, etc. So try it and you might have fun playing that game.

On December 7, Charlie gave his students an update, telling them he appreciates their messages of love and support, and noting that complete strangers have been calling and writing, offering financial support and even organ transplants (!). He concludes by telling them “Please continue your prayers for me and keep practicing your usual 10 hours a day. It’s nice to see real musicians that do music for music’s sake.”

The next day, Charlie died. His family posted a note, which included the following paragraphs:

You should know that Charlie was of strong mind and in good spirits throughout his ordeal, and kept an unwavering positive attitude during the past few weeks.


He spoke very openly about dying. He was not afraid and he didn’t want us to be afraid. The most negative thing he said over the last few weeks was ‘What a drag!’ When the doctor told him his diagnosis he said “Good job with your diagnosis. Looks like I’m headed for the last round-up!” The doctor looked at him, after seeing Charlie in pain for a week already without it ever affecting his emotional strength, and said “Charlie, you’re a very strange man.”


Many messages to Charlie were like variations on a theme: “How Charlie saved my life…” “How Charlie believed in me when no one else did…” “How Charlie lifted a great depression off of me…” “How Charlie made me feel like I was his only student…”


As a teacher and mentor, his students were very much a central part of his life. The lessons and music you shared brought great fulfillment to his life for many years, as you are all probably well aware. In many ways, you are like an extended part of his family, and he was deeply touched by your well-wishes. He would have loved nothing more than to continue teaching for many more years.

Banacos was a legendary teacher in jazz circles. At one point, there was a five-year waiting list to take lessons with him. My own teacher, Dee Wood, used to tell me about his lessons with Charlie, and about the challenges they presented, and while my own musical directions took me elsewhere, I have remained keenly aware of him as a pedagogical force of enormous power. Reading his reflections on the musical qualities of his hospital experience brought home to me the responsibilities which a great teacher assumes; Charlie was such a teacher, and he continued to teach by example up to the end.

The ear-training methods devised by Banacos specifically for the improvising musician are imitated in college courses and ear-training routines by many educators around the world. His original concept of dealing with relative-pitch exercises, using cadences and recognition of one tone at a time to the progressing of the recognition of clusters of sounds in a key up to all twelve tones simultaneously, and also the memorization of pitches without reference to a key, was developed to enable musicians to hear equally well in tonal and atonal situations both in improvised situations and in pre-conceived settings.[6] Central to Banacos’ teaching is his view that ear-training techniques should be taught differently to each muscian, because each person has individual neurological pathways pre-arranged in the brain. According to Banacos, without proper ear-training advanced music making will sound mechanical and soulless.[1]


In an interview, Charlie said:

Sometimes I get asked “Who’s your best student?” or “Who’s your favorite student?” and I always answer that it’s the student I’m teaching at the moment. I love to teach and I’m not one of those people who teach because they can’t get a gig. I’ve always taught.

I am proud to be a music teacher.

Thanks, Charlie.

Karen, thanks for your reminiscences of Charlie. Though I never knew him, so many of my friends learned from him and told me stories that I felt quite a strong connection with him and his work.

I just found out about Charlie an hour ago and am in shock. I studied guitar with him for two years a couple years back and was hoping to go back someday to study with him forever. I called him a few months back as I always did every year to wish him Happy Birthday! He was his same ol’ funny, spirited self. Even after years he always remembered my name, my husbands name, my bands name, what I did, and my interests and would ask about them. I always remember the funny things he would say and do at lessons such as his rubber chicken gag. He would pull it out from behind his piano and give it a loud squeak when he wanted to be funny and get your attention. One christmas I bought him a smaller version with a different tone:-) I wonder if he ever used it. I’ll always remember him as one of the greatest teachers with a sense of humor. A super nice guy who never criticized; always encouraged. I am a certified teacher of the late great world renowned voice teacher Dante Pavone and if you go to my web site you will see I mention Charlie as a great influence in my life. He is leaving behind a lot of people who really cherrished and loved him. I wish I had found out sooner as I feel sad that I wasn’t able to go to the service. It was an honor to have known and worked with Charlie Banacos and I miss him already. I’m sure he’s up in heaven teaching all the angels his jazz licks as he is one of God’s angels himself.


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