May 22, 2024

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Interview with Harold Danko: Not much from the 21st century

Interview with pianist Harold Danko. An interview by email in writing.

Dear readers, get to know more about our US/EU Jazz – Blues Festivals and the activities of our US/EU Jazz – Blues Association in the capitals of Europe, we will soon publish program for 2024, enjoy in the July – August – Brussels, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Sofia, new addreses this year, also in Amsterdam, Budapest and Liverpool. – First, where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?

Harold Danko: – Grew up in Masury, Ohio, near, Youngstown. Older brothers (Joe and John) played clarinet and saxophone. There were jazz records and polka records, which my dad liked, around. When I was five a piano was brought into the house and I started lessons soon after. Chuck Berry and American Bandstand on television got my attention early on but the real passion for jazz started with hearing Milestones on my brother Joe’s stereo, around 1959 when I was about 12. I realized I might make a living from it when I stared playing gigs at about 17. It was a better option than working in a steel factory like my father. During college years I also began to teach.

OUR US/EU Jazz and Blues Festivals 2024

OUR US/EU Jazz and Blues Festivals 2023

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?

HD: – There were some great classical teachers who helped, particularly Robert Hopkins, who got me focused on touch.  I still try to keep many of those physical things close at hand (!) when I improvise. That is the real challenge since your technique must be in good operation for the musical ideas to flow.

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?

HD: – I always had a pretty decent beat and sense of time but continue to work at various rhythmic groupings, trying for a sense of speech rhythms and inflections.  For harmony I have analyzed a lot of music, and particularly enjoy the early 20th century developments by Ravel and Debussy among others.  Simple scale tone exercises (triads, etc.) in all scale systems keep my fingers and mind occupied.

JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why?

HD: – I think I have simplified a bit with age.  I am very aware of what I know and what I don’t know.

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JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

HD: – Good question. I am very inquisitive about many things and feel that process is uppermost for an improvising musician. I don’t know much about soul, but feel we are touching that realm when we honestly play music.  I think I can hear honesty across musical genres, and gravitate to things that grab my ear, and thus my soul.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?  

HD: – I will not pander to audiences or music business types.  I must confess I play for myself first, and fortunately there seems to be a bit of an audience that gets me.  The most important thing for me in my sideman days was that musicians like Chet Baker, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, and many others must have gotten me, and even paid me to make music with them.  No one can take that experience from me.  There are some in the business end as well, not many, but a few important record producers who have documented my work.  Being from the working class I am very proud that I earned a living in music.  I am not sure how today’s musicians carve out a career.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?

HD: – The repertoire that has always interested me most is jazz instrumental tunes, written by jazz musicians, rather than standard tunes with lyrics.  I think my own recordings bear that out. When I am playing with musicians who are honest in their love of the standard repertoire I can go there since I know a lot of tunes.  Young jazz musicians need to get models from the pantheon of greats rather than from someone who may be current and popular, or from some competitive ambition, or advice solely based on the industry.  Digging deeper into the actual music and tradition, and enjoying the process, is key to a sense of belonging to something bigger than self, and maybe even personal well being and sanity

JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?

HD: – I recognize that I am a spiritual being and try to be a good person. Many people, even with religion as a crutch, don’t really know or practice that.

OUR US/EU Jazz and Blues Association 2023

JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?

HD: – Something about the media and the entertainment business.  The culture needs to be aware of and value what art means in civilization, not just what sells or not. The advertising industry is only interested in aggressive selling.

JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?  

HD: – Not much from the 21st century. My tastes were molded in my college years and are pretty eclectic. I’m still checking out Stravinsky, Ravel, and other classical music plus the great jazz players, and some pop music that I have liked since I was a teenager.  Brazilian music and other world musics are very rewarding to me as well. Sometimes I prefer not to listen at all, just to look around, observe and be present .

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?

HD: – It would be fun to go to the premiere of Sacre in 1913.

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Interview by Simon Sarg

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