in his own words...John Bany
John Bany is one of Chicago’s most prolific bass players. Bany grew up in Ohio, but has called Chicago home for over thirty years. Bany studied bass with Charlie Medcalf, Harold Roberts and Richard Topper, all bassists with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and holds a degree in music from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. After winning the United States Air Force Worldwide Talent Contest in 1964, he went on the road with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra and subsequently served as jazz editor for the International Society of Bassists Magazine, from 1984 through 1988.
His bass playing––and occasionally his unique vocal stylings––have delighted audiences worldwide. A veteran bass player, Bany has played at numerous festivals, including the original Big Horn (Ivanhoe, Illinois), the Chicago Jazz Festival (nine appearances), the Mid-American Jazz Festival (St. Louis), Elkhart Jazz Festival (thirteen appearances) and the Atlanta World Music Fest. Bany has recorded with Joe Venuti, Bud Freeman, Eddie Higgins, Bonnie Koloc, Chuck Hedges and Don DeMichael (The Swingtet), and can be heard on the Grammy-nominated album, The Real Bud Freeman (1984), which received four-and-a-half stars in DownBeat. He can also be heard on the Grammy Award-winning album, A Tribute to Steve Goodman.
Largely as a result of his love for the jam session, Bany has performed with a list of local and national luminaries too long to name. Bany feels the jam session represents the height of jazz communication, an opinion formed at a very young age, when Bany’s bassist father would conduct jazz jams in their Ohio home. Since the late-seventies, Bany has made jam sessions in Chicago his bread-and-butter. Bany’s current long standing sessions at Andy’s (he literally started their late-night sets) and Chambers make him one of the most recognized and listened-to bassists on the Chicago jazz scene today.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you come from a musical family?
John Bany: Yeah, my dad was a swing bass player. Very rhythmic, he could really propel a band. He had a group called the Men of Note––they were booked by Willard Alexander and the William Morris Agency. They played venues all over the country: the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, the Mulebach in Kansas City, they played the Edgewater Beach Hotel here, and they played venues where only big bands played––they were only a quartet, but they managed to get away with that. There’s not one recording of them! My dad did not seem to understand or believe in the power of the record. He started playing in the thirties. He didn’t record anything, so I have no idea what they sounded like. I heard three of the four of them, but I never heard them all together. It was fiddle, bass, vibes, and he’d double on piano and guitar, and that was it. They did some comedy, and they dressed in a white tie and tails way before MJQ. I guess it was a sophisticated swing. Man could he swing! And he could play rhythm guitar, which is still one of my favorite sounds. A lot of young players don’t know how to play rhythm guitar. It’s like brushes on a snare: [imitates a guitarist] Shunk-Shunk-Shunk-Shunk. My brother Dave got lessons on rhythm guitar, but he didn’t sound like my dad. Guitarists want you to hear every note they are playing and their beautiful chords, but on rhythm guitar you can’t. That’s the beautiful thing about rhythm guitar.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What was it like growing up in the Bany household?
Bany: I can still vividly recall at age two-and-a-half or three, jam sessions in our kitchen in Dayton, Ohio––my father on bass—guitar, accordion, brushes on a newspaper, and this wonderful tenor saxophone player named Bud Gaskel. He had a sound and style like Ben Webster. For years he was my favorite person in the world. Bud was what “cool” is. In 1945, just after the war, we moved to Celina, Ohio, where my dad opened a music store. Now jam sessions occurred at home, at the store and at the local Moose Club, where my dad was a member. In 1950, we moved to Delaware, Ohio. My dad took a job selling musical instruments on the road for a Chicago based company, Targ & Dinner. During this period I took cornet lessons from Sister Bennett, until one day I hit a wrong note and she hit the bell of my horn and split my lip. “No more lessons!” my dad hollered. I was so relieved. In 1952, we moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where my dad took a position selling pianos. Now my brother Dave and I saw him much more, and from time to time he would take us with him to sessions, and/or parties at other people’s houses.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you listen to much recorded music around the house?
Bany: We did. The first thing I heard was Slam Stewart. My dad adored Slam Stewart and Art Tatum and Tiny Grimes. My dad would practice to them and memorize them by playing them all the time. I still have those seventy-eights. A few days ago I was listening to Art Tatum and Tiny Grimes again, and I was just knocked out. How in the world did they do that?! Art Tatum was a monster. And Tiny Grimes would play right along with him, only the harmony line. And Slam would be right there with them. At any tempo Slam had perfect intonation and time. Art Tatum, to my knowledge, only used two bass players in his life, Slam and Red Callender. Mostly Slam. They were from New York, and Slam was born in Englewood, New Jersey, and lived right across the river from Harlem. Art Tatum and Slam had met in L.A. And at that time, Slam had a hit record with Slim Galliard, “Flat Foot Floogie.” That was one of the first jukebox hits. The very same year, there was “Big Noise From Winnetka,” another jukebox hit. It was very economical, only two players on it.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Sounds like most live music clubs today.
Bany: Yeah, well today you’d use a synthesizer. Dick Reynolds and I used to hang at a place called Figaro’s, near Rush Street, 7 East Oak. And Reynolds would come in and we would talk––I loved talking to him; I loved that place. He had this commercial for United Airlines using Rhapsody in Blue, with a whole orchestra. He said all of it was synthesizer. Uh-oh, I see where it’s going now. And Steve Eisin told me around that time, just about 1980, he says the studio wanted him to come in, so they could take a sampling of his sound. So now the guys are out of jobs. Just like the printers. In so many ways musicians have been losing jobs. I suggested something to the musician’s union years ago: promote live music, have a big campaign, using a good ad agency. If you can promote fast food, you can certainly promote live music. That should be an easy one. So far it isn’t happening. Gary Matts is the president of the union now, and we were in line together for Buddy Charles’ wake. We were talking and he said they were hiring an ad agency to promote live music. But I haven’t seen anything about it. They would be making so much more in dues and everything. The musician’s union would become strong again. It’s so weak right now.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Let’s get back to your household when you were growing up. Was your mother musical?
Bany: Wonderful singer. She had relative pitch. She was trained in solfège, and could read a piece of music and sing the notes. She had great taste in music. She played Beethoven when I was very young. I heard Art Tatum from my dad, and they both adored Stan Kenton. And my mother liked Beethoven, and she loved Ravel too. I got into some trouble when I was playing a Bonnie Koloc concert and she hasn’t been using me too much lately. And I think one of the reasons is that before the concert I was talking to the folk musicians backstage, and I was making a joke. I said my wife and I knew we were soul mates after the first date: We both loved J.S. Bach, we both loved Stan Kenton, and we both hated Bob Dylan. And they said, What? What’s wrong with Bob Dylan? It’s like Eric Schneider said in last month’s interview in the magazine: “Bob Dylan can’t sing. He’s a beautiful poet, but he can’t sing and he can’t play guitar or harmonica!” But I shouldn’t have said that. And I realized after I said that—that’s one of their icons, one of their gods. So I made a big mistake there, and I’m no longer playing with Bonnie. I played thirty years with her. The first group was with Howard Levy and Steve Eisen––no drums. Steve would bring along a conga so we could add that texture. And Bonnie would sing some Brazilian tunes, so it worked. Howard was on piano, harmonica, mandolin––one night he brought a koto––whatever he felt like. You would never call that a jazz group, most people wouldn’t, but it was the most improvising that I ever did with any group. Everyone was always so in-tune with each other, and listening. That was a really good band. And Phil Grateau joined us later. Bonnie didn’t generally like drummers, I sort of understand why.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You say there was a lot of improvisation, but that you wouldn’t call it jazz. A lot of people would say that the nature of jazz is in the improvisation. If not that, how would you define jazz?
Bany: It has its own style, that’s for sure. Like a Basie sound, or an Oscar Peterson sound, but that’s not what makes it jazz. I made up this term years ago: “spontaneous co-arranging.” Even the bass player or the drummer––if they’re a good musician, like Charlie Braugham or Butch Miles––they are all contributing to the picture. It’s like we’re all writing a story, and we’re all typing together. You are listening to the other ideas, and that’s what makes you write what you write, play what you play. J.S. Bach laid down all the music laws. There is such a thing. Thomas Jefferson, with help from the Magna Carta, put together how we take laws and apply them to man. So between Thomas Jefferson and J.S. Bach, that’s when you have jazz: music, plus the freedom between each other––interplay. It’s only something like the Constitution of the United States or the Magna Carta that makes it possible for us to operate together. So someday, with enough J.S. Bach in the world, we will have world peace. My dear sister is a born-again Christian, and her husband is really staunch. One time I said, “In the long run, J.S. Bach will prove to be more important to the human race than Jesus Christ.” There’s another thing I shouldn’t have said. As I said, I have a knack for that. [laughs] It’s not good.
But I love musicians, especially bass players and drummers. My best friends have always been drummers and bartenders. If I ever get around to an autobiography, it will be called Hookers Are Not the Only Whores. Time again that’s true.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When did you take up bass playing?
Bany: When I was sixteen. I had never lived in a house without a bass. For a while my dad was selling pianos. Then he started selling real estate, and the bass would just sit in the corner. My brother and I lived in a finished attic, with the slanted ceiling, made of wood. That’s where my brother and I slept and we had our record player up there, and that’s where dad kept the bass. The bass was sitting in the corner, all tuned up. And I’m listening to this record my brother had, Pat Boone’s “Love Letters In the Sand.” I was singing bass parts before my voice changed. So my dad would sing bass parts along with the radio when he was driving. In the morning when he would be shaving, he would be singing bass parts with the radio again. So, listening to him, I could do that real early on in my life. One day I just picked up the bass out of the corner and I started: I hit two notes a fourth apart. I knew how that sounded listening to my dad singing. In an hour’s time I had figured out most of the tune… because of the ear he gave me. That was in the summer. In October, the priest at Roger Bacon High School, where I went, needed a bass player in a dance band. He had all these charts, and I couldn’t read a note. But my brother was in the band, playing guitar, and he would turn around when the priest wasn’t looking and point to where my first note was on the bass. I just sounded it out. I sounded out most of the beginning of my career, and no one questioned me.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Considering you came from a musical family, sixteen seems to be a late start.
Bany: Yeah, well I started playing cornet earlier, but I put it down because I didn’t like it. I used to take lessons with Sister Bennett once a week, and I hit a wrong note one time, and she hit the bell and split my lip. I don’t think she meant it viciously, but I came home and my dad said no more lessons. And I was so happy I could stop playing that. Some of the nuns would beat me up good.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you go to college?
Bany: Yeah. By my last year in high school I was already starting to go to jam sessions everywhere I could. I was driving by then, and I was getting good enough to play. I played in a band called the Teen Tones, which was a very good bunch of teenagers, who played stock charts. It was a dance band, really, and we were on television every single Saturday afternoon. Nevertheless I got a pretty good reputation. I was the “baddest” high school bass player in Cincinnati. But I always mention that Michael Moore and Lynn Seaton hadn’t come along yet––that’s why I stuck out! But the band director from Xavier University needed a sousaphone player, so I got a full ride for that. I took it home. My mom sees me coming in the backdoor with a sousaphone. I knew the fingering because I had three years of playing cornet, and I knew what it was supposed to sound like. Man, I really did like it. We would rehearse indoors with six sousaphones. Sometimes we would all end in unison on the low double B-flat. That was nirvana––anything low like that I loved. I love baritone saxophone and bass trombone, bass combined with that in the big band; that’s the greatest sound.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you major in music?
Bany: Yeah, it was a Bachelor of Arts. I’ve been told it’s about the most useless degree you can have: Bachelor of Arts with a major in Music and a minor in Russian. I quit Xavier in my freshman year. I was playing most of the time––mostly with big bands in Cincinnati. That started to really be my living then, when I was still living at home.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you have thoughts of becoming a professional or did it just sort of evolve?
Bany: As soon as I started playing to that Pat Boone record I knew I was doing this the rest of my life. No doubt about it. Other guys were wondering what they were going to major in. I knew for sure. That was out of the way.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: It made life easier.
Bany: Oh yeah. I joined the Air Force. I wanted to be a musician, of course. Navy School of Music would have been good, but I joined the Air Force. When I got to San Antonio for basic training, they talked me into becoming a linguist. Musicians make good linguists because you are associating sounds, so the Air Force sent me to Syracuse University to study Russian. Talk about jam sessions! Syracuse had jam sessions everywhere. Well, the whole country did at that time, but in Syracuse, especially. I could go to three jam sessions any night, and they would all be cooking sessions. Any night of the week! The first jam session I went to, there was this tenor player, Sal Nestico, who lived in Syracuse at the time and was already legend. He was about nineteen. He would take a deep breath and blow this solo, mostly sixteenth notes, of the most incredible stuff you ever heard. Then I joined the union there. If you’re in the military you can’t join the union, so I joined under the name John Blaney, a cross between Blanton and Bany. I was working pretty much in Syracuse. And again my grades suffered, but I was playing. To graduate you had to have a C-average. I barely graduated.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When did you learn to read music?
Bany: When my dad realized I was going to be involved in music seriously, he felt that he couldn’t teach me right, because he had learned music by the seat of his pants, too. He got me Charlie Medcalf, a Cincinnati Symphony bassist, who worked at a place called Stitzels in Hamilton, Ohio, with a guy named Cal Collins, who taught my brother guitar. My dad got him to stop at our house on the way to the gig on Wednesdays to teach me lessons. He came to our house every week for the next couple of years, for five dollars an hour. I think my dad could talk anyone into just about anything. He was an incredible salesman. I learned out of the Bob Haggard book and the Simandl book––those were the two main texts––for five dollars a lesson. It was just amazing. He was such a good teacher. I was really fortunate. When I got out of the Air Force, I started going to Miami University in Ohio....
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