Chris Bank: Music Man of the valley | AspenTimes.com
Paul Andersen

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Chris Bank: Music Man of the valley

Bathed in red by a stage light, jazz instructor Chris Bank orchestrates students of the Waldorf School Wind Ensemble in Carbondale during a rehearsal, March 18, 2004. Aspen Times photo/ Nick Saucier.

When Professor Harold Hill tantalized the folks of River City with the promise of a school band in Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” he was more dreamer than director.

When Chris Bank raises his baton for the school bands he directs in the Roaring Fork Valley, he makes dreams come true for youthful band members.

Bank is not exactly a high-stepping Harold Hill. As a freelance musician, conductor and music teacher, he came to school bands by default while pursuing a musical passion that was bred into him as a child.

His mother was a pianist and his father a vocalist. Bank did not like the fit of the piano, so he went his own way on the electric bass. Vocals appealed to him most, however, which he employed in his youth with a variety of garage bands.

Bank attributes his voice to his Hungarian grandfather, who as a child had the beautiful soprano range that was sometimes preserved by castration. His grandfather was a candidate for a “castrato,” but to Bank’s relief, and attesting by his birth, his grandfather was spared. Bank was the fifth of 10 children, all of whom received musical training in the home.

“With all the instruments in my life, I realize that the strongest thing in my musical life is my voice. That is my main instrument. When I sang in garage bands, we did Motown, and those were high vocals – castrato range,” laughed Bank.

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He took a hiatus from music while playing college football, but eagerly returned to his musical roots when he moved to Aspen in 1971.

“Whatever the need and the style, I played when it felt good to play. I spent about a year in Aspen, but I got frustrated that my music wasn’t going anywhere, so I started traveling and playing in cities on the West Coast, in Boulder and in Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve been playing music ever since – mostly bass and sax and vocals.”

Bank was married in Boulder, started a family and, like many musicians, supported his music with a variety of day jobs. “I played music at night when I could, and I was pretty set on making music happen at some time, so I did what I had to do to support my hobby.”

Bank moved back to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1988, largely because of his interest in the Baha’i faith, which has a following here. “I worked as a flagger in Glenwood Canyon. That will motivate your thinking in the direction of getting it together musically to make it work.”

A friend and fellow musician, Terry Bannon, recommended Bank to bandleader Bobby Mason, and Bank joined one of the most popular rock bands in the valley. Later, Bank played jazz at The Little Nell with guitarist Howard Arthur, doing “smooth jazz with a little bit of rhythm and blues,” a mix he has been performing for the last eight years at Syzygy, an Aspen restaurant, with Steve Peer and Bannon.

In the mid-1990s, Bank ventured into new terrain, accepting a temporary job teaching music at the behest of a friend who worked at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale. Bank also began building his family home on Missouri Heights. Two years later, it was done.

“That’s when I was approached by Bill Parish,” said Bank of another prominent valley band leader. “He told me there was an opening at the Basalt Middle School, directing the band. I didn’t have any directing experience, but decided it was something I could do.”

Just as Bank was getting the feel for conducting, he received a call from the owner of the music store in Glenwood Springs, who told him that the band director for the high school and middle school had cancer, and that they needed help.

“I took over the program and realized how much there was to do. The day after I took the job they sent me and the band to Snowmass to march in the Mardi Gras parade.

“They said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You just walk with the kids and they’ll pretty much take care of everything else.'”

Bank marched with the band, which led to a career shift and personal challenge that has placed him in half a dozen school music programs in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. He learned to read high-level orchestra charts, enter groups in ensemble contests and conduct 100-piece bands. Gradually, he built his skills and his confidence until the baton felt light and easy in his hand.

In this capacity, Bank became involved with Jazz Aspen through an after-school jazz band he started with Carbondale music teacher Jim Fox.

“They funded us and got us music and equipment,” said Bank. “Jazz Aspen has been a huge help. My kids perform at the jazz festival, and we bring up jazz musicians to work with the kids. My budget has been very small, and they buy instruments, music and send us to performances. They have helped immensely getting things jump-started for us. And the Aspen Music Festival has done a lot, too.

“Both organizations have been really huge for giving us things you don’t find most places unless you’re in the big city.”

In addition to directing jazz programs and his regular performances at Syzygy, Bank teaches guitar and brass instruments to a number of students, many of whom are inspired to play in ensembles. Three years ago, the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork asked him to start a wind program, which became a jumping-off point for a new jazz group.

“It started with one kid coming up and saying, ‘We need a band here.’ I told him we needed at least five or six kids to make it worthwhile, so he ran out on the playground and got about five or six kids to say yes. He came back and said, ‘I’ve got a band!’ By the time we started, I had about nine or 10 kids. Well, it grew, and now it’s about a 22-piece group, which is a huge percentage of the school, and it’s going to grow more next year.

“I want to put more of my energy into the Waldorf School,” explained Bank, who sings with the Waldorf adult choir and conducts the jazz band at the Friday afternoon Coffee House gatherings. “I’m bringing kids from other schools there for performances, and it seems to be the place to be centered out of.”

Watching one of those performances, it becomes apparent that the magic of music creates a spirit in young musicians, and that Bank helps that spirit to emerge.

“When I was building my house,” recalled Bank, “I could work 12 hours a day, then drive up to Aspen to play at Syzygy and barely keep my eyes open to make the drive. But within five minutes of playing, I was totally energized, and that would last through the 45-minute drive home, where I would just collapse. Music very much recharges me; it’s a spiritual lift and it affects the balance of my day. It’s a release. I hope the kids get some of that same thing.”

Watching the members of the honor band smile with satisfaction after a rousing performance, or hearing the middle school jazz ensemble launch into a swing classic before a proud and appreciative audience of parents and school chums, the magic of music lives in Chris Bank’s conducting.

“We just finished honor band in Glenwood and that was the first time we had tried it with all the schools in our district,” Bank said. “When you see them come in the for the first time, and they’re working through a new piece, you see doubts. But when it starts to click, they’ve got huge smiles.

“It’s never been about how many kids can I get to make a career out of music. If they’re getting that smile at the end of the day, then that’s what I want to get out of it. That’s what I want to gauge success by.”