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Bass motives as jazz musicians rally around John Bany

Chicago bassist John Bany's at a familiar haunt, leading a jam session at Andy's
Chicago bassist John Bany's at a familiar haunt, leading a jam session at Andy's

In Chicago jazz circles, it’s hard to imagine an odder picture than John Bany without his bass. The veteran Chicago jazzman has anchored groups across the city for more than 40 years – establishing long-term weekly jam sessions at Andy’s (downtown) and The Chambers (in Niles) – and in the mind’s eye, he always seems fused to the bass violin.

Bany is currently bassless, though, victimized by an onstage mishap that all but destroyed his instrument last month. Yet if the Chicago jazz community has anything to say about it, he’ll soon have most of the $5,000 or so he needs to buy a replacement acoustic bass.

Two benefit jam sessions have been organized to raise the funds – the first this Thursday at Chambers (6881 N. Milwaukee Ave.) from 7:30 till 11:30, and another on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at Katerina’s in North Center. As to who will perform at these events: considering the esteem Bany commands within the Chicago jazz community, it would probably take less space to list those who will not be in attendance.

Bany was leading his regular jam session at The Chambers on the first Thursday of the new year, he explained to me, when his bass took a header. “This bass player came up to play, and he might have been a little overserved; he was also coming down with the flu, as it turned out. In any case, he came up and put his hand on the bass to take it from me. I thought he had it, but then he kept walking, straight over to give the piano player a hug. So we both let go at the same time.

“And then my heart stopped, and the bass fell over, right on the bridge” – the extension on the front of the instrument that lifts the strings away from the fingerboard, and also its most vulnerable part. If Bany didn’t believe in superstition before this mishap, he has reason to do so now; the incident occurred on January 3 – 1/3/13.

While his bass is not completely unsalvageable, Bany said, it would require close to $6,000 to repair it – and even then, there’s no guarantee that it would regain the sound and touch that made him fall in love with it seven years ago.

Unlike many basses that earn the fealty of their owners, this one had no lengthy provenance or decades-long legacy; it was only about 10 years old. “But the sound,” Bany said: “the first note I played on it, I actually still recall the moment, I couldn’t get over the roundness of it. And when I started to bow it – well, it changed the way I play. It made me really like bowing; I liked it so much that I was soon bowing almost every solo I took” (as opposed to the more common jazz device of plucking the strings).

Bany would love to see his old bass repaired at some point, if only to learn whether it might retain its sound and touch. For now, though, he hopes to raise enough funds to supplement some meager savings and purchase a “FlyAway bass,” so named because of its travel-ready construction: it has a detachable fingerboard, allowing it be packed in a compact case and baggage-checked for airplane trips. The cost of such instruments is about $5,000.

Bany – who once threatened to title his autobiography “Hookers Are Not The Only Whores,” alluding to the frequently soul-sapping gigs that allow a working musician to pay the rent – had no insurance on his instrument. (Too expensive, he said, for an old bass player using social security and his musicians’ union pension to meet daily expenses.)

Then again, insurance can take many forms – including support from a community of musicians who have been mentored and supported by a grizzled and much-loved bassist who lost his instrument doing what he does best, at a typical jam session on a wintry Chicago night.

NOTE: This article was updated to include the correct date of the second benefit. It takes place Feb. 19, not Feb. 12.


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