Jazz Institute of Chicago

Grandpa Bass

Earlier Days

Grandpa Bass
by Jim Beebe

My band had just started our regular Saturday night gig in Oakbrook. We quickly settled into a nice groove on Duke Ellington's quirky tune, "What am I here for." A little blond bundle of joy darted out from a side table and ran up the two steps to our bandstand. She ran to the front, jumped off, raced up the two steps, and jumped off again. Bassist John Bany was beaming, "That's Michaela ( pronounced Mick-kay-la), my granddaughter," he said, "She is two years old."

The Bany family was celebrating a birthday with John's wife, Nancy, son Martin and daughter Lisa and her husband, Brian Winters, with their daughter, little Michaela. The tune ended and Michaela ran over and stretched her arms up on John's bass. He leaned over, picked her up and held her close to the bass so that she could pick the strings. "She calls me, Grandpa Bass," John said. What could be more fitting?

He won't admit it, but I suspect that Grandpa Bass is already grooming his granddaughter to dethrone Marlene Rosenberg, the Queen of Chicago Jazz bassists. Little Michaela couldn't have a better teacher than the Dean of Chicago Jazz Bassists. In a city that has spawned some of the finest jazz bass players in the world, Bany stands out not only as one of the very finest bassists anywhere but a very unique and special person in a unique and special musical world. As a trombonist and bandleader, I never found a better musical associate than Grandpa Bass.

I have known John around the Chicago jazz scene for many years. He has been a prominent figure in some of the best groups and best clubs in the city. He is with Chuck Hedges' Swingtet, a world class quintet which has held forth Monday's at Andy's for years and is in demand at many Jazz festivals.

He has worked with Bud Freeman, Joe Venuti, Buck Clayton, the Jimmy Dorsey Band, Barrett Deems and other legendary jazz figures. He is on many fine recordings with an assortment of bands and has played with the popular and unique singer, Bonnie Koloc, for many years. He worked weekends with my group for the last 6 years, until that gig ended in February. All these give him an eclectic carpet on which to display his gifts.

In 1992, my beloved long time bassist, Jimmy Johnson, was stricken with cancer and went to spend his remaining days with his daughter in Los Angeles. I had three nights a week at the raucous Dick's Last Resort in Chicago and weekends at the Braxton in Oakbrook, a gig that lasted 14 years. I was at sea as to who could replace JJ, as we called him. It must be true that Nature abhors a vacuum because, as if by magic, my old friend Truck Parham stepped forward to take the Dick's gig and John let me know that he was interested in the weekend gig.
Both worked out perfectly.

John Bany is admired by many professional jazz musicians and jazz fans for many reasons. First is his special talent as a virtuoso bassist who can swing his butt off in any musical setting. He can easily fit in with any style of music, but straight ahead jazz is where his heart is.

He has an impeccable ear and an inspired sense of taste, which make him much in demand. It is often said of superior jazz musicians that they have the uncanny ability to play the right note at just the right time, with the right sound, in just the right place and with just the right feel.

He elicits a wonderful tone quality out of basses that might sound like bedpans in lesser hands. His own bass is a German flatback that dates back to 1830, which he uses on premier gigs and on recordings. He has another bass for more mundane gigs.

John's bass lines when backing up the band behind the ensemble or soloists are always just right, but it is on his solos that his remarkable musicality comes swinging through. He can solo brilliantly on any tune, in any key, at any tempo. He has remarkable strength and dexterity in his fingers and is able to play difficult triplet figures at double time, which always astounds me.

His solos are compositions unto themselves and often contain little bits of his sly sense of humor. He served in the Air Force 1960–64 and is fond of interjecting a couple bars of the Air Force song into his solos, placing this bit of musical whimsy where you wouldn't think they'd fit structurally. But it does, and always elicits a knowing chuckle from the musicians and fans that pick up on it. Frequently, he will grab his bow and do a bowing/vocalese unison tribute to one of his favorite bassists, Slam Stewart.

His vocals complement his bass work. He likes to take a tune that many have done in a standard way and vocalize it in a nonstandard way. He has a CD out with many of his vocals on it—a special edition only available from him.

Most musicians prefer to be sidemen and John is no exception. Bandleading tends to divert attention from one's playing. Necessity, however, has pushed him into being a leader and he is a very effective one. He knows how to put the right musicians together and how to call the right tunes in a particular gig situation.

Grandpa Bass is the envy of many musicians for at least two reasons. One is that he has carved out a professional musical life for himself that suits him perfectly. He likes variety and to work with different musicians in different settings. He doesn't like travelling and has tired of the jazz festival scene. He comes alive at night, in a club playing jazz.

He works two nights at Andy's in Chicago. He starts at 5 p.m. with the Chuck Hedges Swingtet and at 8:30 takes over with his own group—usually Don Stille or John Young on piano, Charlie Braugham, drums, and one horn, often George Bean or Art Davis on trumpet or Ryan Shultz on bass trumpet—sometimes the master tenor saxophonist Eddy Johnson.

On Tuesday, John is back at 8:30 p.m. with his own group and a similar line up. On Thursdays he holds forth at the Chambers in Niles with pianist, Don Stille and drummer Charles Braugham which makes a very formidable trio. Sit-ins are allowed there and some nights at Andy's. One of his favorite gigs was with his own group at a club called Weeds, which was not named for what you might think it was named for. It was on Weed Street, allegedly the shortest street in Chicago, and every Thursday night for 14 years.

Weeds harkens back to when clubs like this were called 'Dives.' There was a slight air of sleaze about it and you got the feeling that gambling or something illicit was going on behind the beaded curtains. Typically, the audience was the usual mixed bag of dedicated jazz fans and indifferent patrons. There was a feeling of authenticity...this was a jazz place, a night club with real night people. It had the right vibes.

Over the years jazz has flourished and evolved in joints like Weeds. The night I was there was a typical Weeds night...the irrepressible trumpeter, George Bean was pissed at the vibes player, Carl Leukauffe, over a musical disagreement and the two were exchanging heated barbs. Grandpa Bass was on his stool, unflappable and stoic, displaying just the right edge of annoyance but inwardly pleased at having the chance for a smoke and a swig. The scene eventually sorted itself out and good jazz was underway again.

His lovely wife, Nancy, is the wife and helpmate that most musicians dream of. John is a night person and if he isn't playing a gig he is hanging out at some club. Besides his wife and family, playing gigs and hanging out is what he loves to do. Nancy makes this possible as she loves what he loves.

They met in 1964 at Miami University in Ohio. She played the French horn. They were in the music school and played in the University symphony. It was "love at first note." They married in 1965. Nancy told me that she went to music school to meet and marry a musician. She said that her father was unhappy in his work and so she wanted a life with someone that loved his work. She hit a bullseye on that as I don't know a musician who is happier at his work than John. Nancy works in the medical field and somewhere in between her schedule and his they meet.

They have two kids, both now adults. Son Martin is a fine drummer on the Chicago jazz scene. John beams when Martin is on the bandstand playing with him. Their daughter, Lisa Bany-Winters, the mother of Michaela, is the Director of the Children's Theater at the Northlight, in Skokie. Lisa has a successful book out on children's theater, a descriptive, fun how-to book for kids.

Grandpa Bass comes from a musical family. His father Norbert 'Knobby' Bany was a professional bassist who traveled the Midwest extensively as a rep for a music distributor. His mother, Barbara, was an excellent singer but never really sang professionally. John remembers moving frequently in his young years; eventually the family settled in Cincinnati. Knobby formed a group, "the Men of Note" which became well known and worked in that area for many years.

His younger brother Dave Baney (ask them about the spelling variation) came to Chicago from Cincinnati in 1987 and is one of the premier jazz guitarists in Chicago. They work together with Chuck Hedges and on some of their own gigs, and they worked extensively together back in Cincinnati. There are two other brothers; Mike was a professional rock bassist in Cincinnati and just a few years ago he was held up and murdered after a job. This was an enormous tragedy for the Bany clan. The murderers were subsequently caught and convicted. Brother Mark plays guitar, but not professionally, and lives in Cincinnati.

For several years John and Nancy traveled extensively with ex-Teagarden trumpeter, Don Goldie. In 1971, after a brief period in Florida, they moved to Chicago.

John is quiet and laid back in a kind of Clint Eastwood way. He is the most gentle of persons but don't mess with him. One night our singer, Judi K, noted that his license plate has the letters, SBD. She started calling him, "silent but deadly," and he loved it. He will put up with a lot musically, but when he is seriously displeased he has subtle, but direct, ways of letting musicians know that he is not happy.

John is protective of his position and his space. I recall on our regular weekend gig when I mistakenly hired another fine bass player, Wilson McKindra, mistakenly thinking that John was going to be off. Both men arrived at the club with their basses at the same time. John assessed the situation, walked past Wilson like he wasn't there, quickly set his equipment up, sat on his stool, and didn't budge. Usually he took his time setting up but this was his space, and his position, and nobody was going to move in on it...period. It all worked out happily as I paid them both and they had a ball taking turns on John's bass.

Bany is a favorite with younger musicians in that he allows and encourages them to sit-in with his group. This time-honored way of apprenticeship in the jazz world is where young ones get a chance to practice their licks with the pros. Many pros seldom allow this, but John revels in it and some fine young musicians have found their way into the Chicago jazz scene via Grandpa Bass.

On September 2, for the Chicago Jazz Festival, he directed a tribute to one of his favorite bassists, Milt Hinton. He assembled Chicago bassists John Whitfield, Dan Shapera, Jimmy Willis, and himself. Had Milt been here, he would have happily joined in.

I have withdrawn from active playing and bandleading for health reasons and one of the things that I miss most is playing with John Bany. But I know that the Chicago Jazz scene will be in good hands as long as "silent but deadly" Grandpa Bass is swinging—and hanging out—in a jazz club somewhere.

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