Monday profile: From Joliet to JAS, Chris Bank makes beautiful music
Longtime performing musician finds new career assisting school music directors
In one of Chris Bank’s earliest memories, he sat on a stool during Mass at his family’s church in Joliet, Illinois, watching his older sister on the organ desperately trying to match the key the priest was calling out.
“It was done in Latin – the priest would sing out and she was supposed to answer it with the organ, and some of these guys couldn’t hold a tune to save their lives, so she was constantly having to move around,” Bank said. “It was an interesting observation of music on the fly.”
Bank has been making music on the fly ever since: From the garage bands of his Joliet youth to bands in Aspen, Seattle, Portland, Wisconsin and Boulder, to his more recent incarnations as Roaring Fork Valley gig musician and Jazz Aspen-Snowmass In-Schools Director.
But Bank — a multi-instrumentalist with one of the sweetest singing voices this side of Nashville — originally aspired to make noise.
“Like every kid, I wanted to be a drummer, but with 10 kids my mom wisely squelched that one,” he said. “So I started on piano because everybody learns to play piano, right? I struggled with that for about a year before they sent me to the band room and they had a sax that needed playing, so I said, ‘OK, I guess I’ll play sax.’”
Jazz was huge in the Chicago of Bank’s youth. So, influenced by uncles who played jazz, Bank continued playing sax in school bands, jazz bands and marching bands throughout high school. He also played bass and sang at high school dances in a garage band with his guitarist brother.
After college at the University of South Carolina, where he was a scholarship football player, Bank moved to Aspen on the invitation of a musician he’d played with in Joliet who said, “You need to come out here!”
“My brother the guitarist and I came out and pretty rapidly formed a six-piece band that played here for a year,” Bank said. “But for me, I was looking for more. I wasn’t into the ski thing too much, I was just into forming a serious band and I didn’t think I could find it here.”
Bank found the serious musicians he was looking for in the Pacific Northwest, and spent years performing there, in Madison, Wisconsin, and in the Boulder-Denver music scene before a tour of Colorado mountain towns with his band brought him back to the Roaring Fork Valley for good in 1987.
“I was looking at the possibility of moving back here at some point anyway, but that kind of clinched it,” Bank said. “I was ready for a change, and at that time I was also getting into the Ba’hai Faith and there was a group of folks out here that I knew. So it seemed like it was all lining up for a change.”
Playing and teaching
Bank joined Bobby Mason’s band, which included Haden Gregg and Terry Bannon, at a time when Mason was “getting all the good gigs.” But after a couple years Bank began branching off into other projects.
When a friend who was teaching music at Colorado Rocky Mountain School told him “they’re overloading me, I can’t do it,” Bank stepped in to assist.
“Then he told me, ‘I don’t have time for this, would you be willing to take it over?’” Bank said. “So I did it for a year, and that gave me the confidence that I could do more.”
Bank’s next opportunity came quickly when another friend, who had been teaching music at Basalt High School, abruptly quit in the middle of summer.
“He said ‘the position is open if you’re interested.’ And I said, ‘eh, not really, but I’ll check it out.’”
Bank ended up taking over the small Basalt High School program that “seemed manageable” because it had only 13 kids in the band at the time.
Then about halfway through the school year Bank got a call from Glenwood High School: Their music director had fallen ill and they were worried they’d lose the program if they didn’t quickly find his replacement. So Bank took that on, too.
“I was in over my head, but I did it long enough to get comfortable,” he said. “It was also a wake-up call for me — if I was considering doing it for a career, it was way more commitment.
“A full-time band director is … you won’t be performing anymore. You won’t have the energy to do both. So it gave me an appreciation for exactly what that job is, which is full-time-and-a-half.”
At that same time, Bank was also playing five nights a week at Syzygy in Aspen — burning the candle from both ends.
“That 8 o’clock in the morning class was not happening for anybody,” he laughed. “The kids weren’t awake and I wasn’t awake, so it was like, ‘let’s start out with something real slow.’”
Bank kept taking “temporary” music director jobs every year at schools in Carbondale and Basalt, but always ended up staying the whole year.
Broader music mission
That led to Jazz Aspen-Snowmass approaching him to oversee its education program.
“I knew all the administrators by then, and I knew all the directors because some of them I helped put in place,” he said.
Bank was tasked with finding out what kind of support school music directors needed. At first, the biggest need was musical equipment, but it soon became obvious to Bank that what they really needed was more help.
“The directors were overwhelmed and were leaving, and I said ‘if we’re going to be replacing directors every year we’re not going to have a program,’” Bank said. “So they said, ‘How about if we brought in a few other people to do what you’re doing as far as assisting.’”
JAS now employs six faculty assistants, including Bank, and spends close to $100,000 a year on the program.
These days, Bank, like most teachers, is giving all his lessons in video chats with small groups of students, and sitting in on classes with other teachers.
“We’re getting an idea of what the online thing can be,” he said. “Just learning more about recording, teaching kids how to multitrack — I’m continually learning ways to keep kids engaged.”
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