My ‘Dear John’ Letter

In previous columns I’ve shared stories regarding the people who paved the path I’ve traveled to become, musically—and sometimes so much more, who I am today. From my piano teacher Jay Hickerson to banjoist/vocalist Bob Price to the entire Galvanized Jazz Band, mentors kept appearing at exactly the right time to get me to the next level. While this column will not represent my final reminiscence of past influences, it concerns, by far, the most flamboyant cog in my musical wheel.

I started college in September, 1985 at Connecticut College in New London, CT. A week prior to matriculating, I endured what I thought was the hardest thing I’d done during my first 18 years of life: giving up my four-nights-a-week residency, both with Bob Price and as a soloist, at the Yankee Silversmith Inn in Wallingford, CT. I reluctantly decided that I’d not be able to concentrate on school if I were making a one-hour-each-way commute several times a week from school to Inn. My first six months of college were dismally bereft of performances of any kind. I used the “down” time by choosing the Greer Music Library as my work-study option, enabling me to illicitly record virtually its entire (and vast) collection of pre-bop jazz from LP to cassette tape. However, I was yearning to be back at the piano playing for appreciative, inebriated (or ideally both) patrons in some establishment of diversion.

Hot Jazz Jubile

The music librarian emerged from her back office one day during my shift and handed me a slip of paper. “Word about your musical tastes and talents has made it across the street,” she said with a wink. I looked down at a name and number, with the invitation to call when I could. One John Banker, a member of the US Coast Guard Band, located at the Coast Guard Academy across the street from CT College, had learned that I loved playing ragtime and early jazz piano and was looking to get together and see if things gelled. Of course I immediately called (from a LANDLINE phone) had a great conversation and set up a meeting in one of the practice rooms at my school.

Album cover for John Banker’s and Jeff’s CD debut as “Ragtime, Too.” It was thought best that Jeff put on the dress and be “Daisy Day” since he has a beard. (photo courtesy Jeff Barnhart)

I got to the room early and started playing through some Jelly Roll Morton tunes until I heard a knock on the door. I opened it and was faced with a HUGE man with an ENORMOUS tuba in full Coast Guard dress (the man, not the tuba). I could only stupidly stutter, “A-a-are y-you J-J-John?” “Well,” he boomed as he thrust the tuba at me, “who else would be dressed like this and holding this?” Our “jam session” went splendidly, and I was soon performing with John all over the state, along with other Coast Guard Band musicians such as Pete Fountain-inspired clarinetist Andy Sherwood and George Mitchell-cum-Lu Watters-by-way-of Maynard Ferguson trumpeter Joe Cordero. Talk about being on third base without ever having touched the ball!

One of our happiest gigs was on Friday and Saturday nights in New London at a restaurant called Timothy Green’s, located at 158 State Street: the same location printer Timothy Green began publishing one of the colony’s earliest newspapers in 1771. To get to where we were playing, you’d pass by the elegant diners enjoying haute cuisine and into the backroom, where you’d find our quartet raising hell. Joe Cordero and Andy Sherwood fronted myself on a short compass spinet piano (a 64-key miniature piano—sometimes referred to as a Tom Thumb or Shirley Temple piano—that John had found and placed in the room) and John on tuba and an isolated high-hat configuration he’d fashioned and would play with his right foot to accent the offbeats. All of the Dixieland favorites, peppered by obscure tunes I introduced to my bandmates, were delivered with manic glee. That gig lasted nearly two years, then the place inexplicably—and hastily—shuttered, holding John’s little miniature piano hostage. He never did recover it, despite years of trying.


Undaunted, John procured a weekend bar gig for the two of us on the neighboring street, Gov. Winthrop Blvd (we New Englanders are always conscious of our far distant past; John Winthrop governed CT from 1657-1676). Our duo job was in the minuscule bar of the Holiday Inn, which by all accounts was not a happening place, BUT had an acoustic piano in decent repair! We’d be over-enthusiastically playing and singing tunes from the 1890s-1940s for road-weary (and often slightly annoyed) business people and local drunks for three hours, while little by little I felt my soul dying. Never mind that this was 1988 and we were making $100 a piece for three hours’ work; that more-than-generous fee was lost on me. I started acting out and complaining and John put up with this for a couple of weeks, then accosted me during one of our breaks. Said he: “I’m sick and tired of your attitude! This is a good-paying gig other musicians would break somebody’s leg for, and all you can do is bitch about how we’re under-appreciated and ignored. I have news for you: this gig isn’t about us!! It’s about the one-in-ten person we might connect with, maybe lightening their load for a minute. AND, it’s about the good money you’re being paid to do that. I can find somebody else if you think this gig is beneath you.”

WOW, was that a wake-up call! I fixed up my act and developed a new appreciation for the honor of holding down a gig. Over time, I was able to ameliorate my sense of entitlement and cultivate one of gratitude. John Banker led the way for me to achieve this. He demanded I find perspective and abandon my myopia. Because of his confronting me at the start of my hubris, I was able to re-focus and contribute to the success of our modest, but oh-so-important gig. Even today, when sessions are going south, I often look back to the lesson he taught me at that hotel-bar residency.

Over the next decade, whenever John got a job somewhere (be it a library show, or summer-gazebo gig, a school auditorium, wedding or nursing home) he’d offer me the piano chair. Sometimes it was Trad Jazz; sometimes a general business gig; occasionally ’50s-’70s rock; even eventually a Calypso/Zydeco/Cajun/Island show! We went all over New England and performed hundreds of gigs for hundreds of thousands of people. He knew of my proclivity as a youngster to show up late to a performance (or even forget it—happily something I grew out of in my mid-twenties) so he suggested we carpool. I think that might have been to scare me.

You see, John was always a multi-tasker who hated wasting time—he even limited his sleep to four hours a night (“People fritter on average a third of their lives snoring away! I’ve got too much to do!”). Often in the car, he’d be using a mere fraction of his attention driving it. He’d always be doing other things in addition to staying on the road. Usually it was only one or two things, but my final ride with him in an automobile saw him driving while scooping lunch out of a Tupperware container, practicing on his Czechoslovakian pocket trumpet (“I’m learning the trumpet while going from gig to gig,” he explained, “and the bell on a normal sized instrument keeps hitting the windshield!”), using his flip-phone to talk to a potential client, AND switching from one performance outfit to the next (“Jeff, can you take the wheel for a minute while I change shirts?”), all while hurtling 75 miles-an-hour down I-95!!

John Banker’s Riverboat Ramblers at the Hot Steamed Festival in 2014, with Sherman Kahn reeds, Sal Ranello washboard, and John Banker. (photo by Shirley Bombaci; courtesy

John never had time to slow down. In addition to playing tuba and banjo in the Coast Guard Dixieland Band, any of our 20+ weekly gigs would include him on tuba, banjo, trumpet, trombone, piano (sometimes we’d duet), steel drum and/or alpenhorn!! As well as several weekly residencies, including a longtime one we shared at the Griswold Inne in Essex, CT (a job he still holds down, thirty years later, on Saturday nights) and 6-7 weekly one-offs, John and I traveled the festival circuit as part of the first (and best) incarnation of Ross Tucker’s Hot Cat Jazz Band, co-lead the group “Hot Jam,” an ensemble comprising some other former members of the Hot Cats (additional columns about these bands coming up in the future) AND made a duo recording with me on piano and vocals and John on vocals and everything else one could think of (this excursion was my first experience with overdubbing).


One final story will illustrate John Banker’s attitude toward life. He’s always had a challenge with his weight. Back in the days of his being in the Coast Guard, eventually becoming the Director of Music for the Cadet Band and Orchestra, he had to submit to an annual physical that included a “weigh-in.” The limit then was 240 pounds and he was always jusssttt under the cusp each time. He’d fast for 48 hours while playing four hours of basketball each day on the Academy grounds, resulting in an immediate (and short-term) loss of 7-10 pounds, that he’d then soon put back on after the “weigh-in!”

Although John and I have taken diverging musical paths, the years I spent with him were filled with great sounds, life lessons, adventure and joy, and he’s still sharing all of these in CT with his enthusiastic audiences. Long may he do so!!

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Jeff Barnhart is an internationally renowned pianist, vocalist, arranger, bandleader, recording artist, ASCAP composer, educator and entertainer. Visit him online Email: [email protected]

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