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Harold Danko: His Own Sound, His Own Time

Jakob Baekgaard By

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I am in a long-term process of trying to master the many recipes of rhythm, melody, and harmony that go into composing and improvising—still providing many pleasures and challenges! —Harold Danko
The famous sculptor, Henry Moore, hit the nail on the head when he said: "there's no retirement for an artist, it's your way of living so there's no end to it." This statement certainly rings true in the case of pianist and composer, Harold Danko. Even though he has retired from a long and distinguished career as a music teacher and now holds Professor Emeritus status at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, the school where he chaired the jazz studies program for eleven years, he has entered a new phase in his life that has made it possible to focus solely on his own music. But make no mistake, Danko has already lived life to the fullest on the bandstand and has played with Thad Jones, Chet Baker, Woody Herman, Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, just to name a few.

Danko is also a prolific composer and has an expansive discography as a leader and his track record with the Danish SteepleChase label is impressive. Among solo recitals and quartet offerings, it includes the distinctive trio releases with bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Jeff Hirshfield, Lost in the Breeze (2016) and Triple Play (2017). While he has arrived at his own sound, there's still a sense of adventurousness and discovery about Danko's approach to music and one of his latest albums, Playdate, released in March 2019, finds him in a duo setting with the progressive trumpeter, Kirk Knuffke.

It's not a new thing that Danko delves into the edgy corners of jazz. For instance, he made an homage to saxophonist, Eric Dolphy, with the album Prestigious (2001). Danko is fundamentally a deeply lyrical and swinging pianist, who combines the virtues of inside and outside playing, and he is still perfecting his music, learning new ways of approaching it. It's a process that started long time ago.

All About Jazz: I've read that you started studying piano at the age of five, but what is your first memory of playing the piano and is your discovery of music connected particularly to this instrument?

Harold Danko: A spinet piano came into our house because my oldest brother, Joe, a clarinetist and saxophonist, was a music student in college and needed it for his studies. My first memories were of trying to plink out tunes and Joe showing me where middle C was on the piano and also on the music staff. I started lessons some time later at a music store in Sharon, PA with Mrs. Polangan, who was European, probably at 7 or 8. These lasted a few years and included mostly classical music. I remember that my teacher was really impressed by my playing of a boogie woogie piece and had me play it for some customers in the store.

AAJ: Did you grow up in a musical family with a history of playing the piano?

HD: My family was musical, but the piano was a new thing for us. My father played button accordion in Slovak traditional style and my mother was very musical and sang. My brother John also played saxophone and clarinet professionally, as did Joe.

AAJ: You started studying very early. Did you find it a challenge to keep the sense of fun that is often associated with playing an instrument without any rules or did studying enhance your appreciation of the music from the beginning?

HD: I was not a particularly good student, but Mrs. Polangan had me doing some challenging repertoire after some time. I can't remember doing any formal recitals, and always resisted practicing. I became known for my singing in elementary school and sang in two operettas in 5th and 6th grade in my school. Since I was a boy soprano, I could not wait for my voice to change, so I stopped singing in 7th grade until I sang in my high school chorus, mainly because there were a lot of girls in the chorus. I never followed through on singing except for college requirements.

AAJ: What kind of music did you play then? Was jazz already in the picture?

HD: I always tried to improvise and heard jazz in my house from my brothers' 78 rpm records. Stan Getz, Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, and others as well as polka records that my father liked, and of course lots of popular music on the radio. I heard my brothers practicing standard tunes as a very young child although both were away in the army in the early 1950s and then married and moved out by the time I was about 8 and taking piano lessons. They would both come over and play tunes with me as I learned standard tunes from chords, but that was probably when I was about 12. In the mean time I heard lots of rock and roll on TV (American Bandstand) and radio and loved Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and most of the rest of the early stuff in that genre. I also stopped taking piano lessons for a time and then started again at maybe 11.



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