Jazz Festival Diary #7: Eastman professor Harold Danko

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The 2016 Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival (XRIJF) concluded on July 2. Among the hundreds of musicians gathering for this major musical event are many Eastman faculty members, alumni, and students. Free-lance writer Dan Gross posted regularly on the Eastman School blog during the XRIJF with reports and interviews highlighting Eastman’s involvement. Here, Dan interviews pianist and Eastman professor Harold Danko.

By Dan Gross

Professor Harold Danko has been on the faculty of the Eastman School of Music since 1998 and served as Jazz Studies Chair from 2002 to 2011. Prior to his appointment at Eastman, he served on the faculties of the Manhattan School of Music, the New School/Mannes, Hartt College, and other institutions. Beginning his piano studies at the age of five, Harold became serious about pursuing a career in jazz at the age of fifteen, when he commenced studies with Gene Rush in Youngstown, Ohio. After graduation from Youngstown State University and a stint in the U.S. Army band, Harold landed the piano chair in Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd, which launched his career as a much sought after jazz musician. He also developed a reputation as a respected jazz educator in New York City and throughout the world.

Currently at Eastman he teaches jazz piano, directs the Jazz Performance Workshops, and heads the Eastman Jazz Trio and Quartet. The group released its first CD in 2003 and continues to perform in the region. In addition to his own educational video, Jazz Keyboard Techniques, available only in Brazil, he can be seen and heard on video performances with Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, and Lee Konitz.

Harold’s featured column, “Solo Piano”, appeared in Keyboard magazine for more than five years, and his keyboard improvisation method, the Illustrated Keyboard Series, is a widely used reference work. In 2007 he received a Bridging Fellowship to do research in the University of Rochester Linguistics Department on the relationship of speech and music, and continues to advise students who are pursuing this line of research. Harold has won ASCAP awards yearly since the early 80s for the value of his catalog of original compositions. He has also just returned after touring for a month in Italy with saxophonist Gigi DiGregorio and other musicians from the Torino-Milan area.

What was your path into teaching?

I was in Ohio, and a man named Gene Rush, who was also a student at Youngstown. He was considerably older than me and more established, but he was going to work in Washington, D.C. He had about thirty or forty students in all. He told the parents of about twenty of his students that I was just as good as he was, because he just wanted to leave town. About fifteen got back to me, and most lasted for a while.

I was thrust into the water of teaching and I was playing some gigs and had some performances in between my teaching, but I was able to pay my way through school. School wasn’t that much; I was able to buy my own piano, and I said, “This beats whatever other people do during the summer.” One summer I spent at the steel mill with my dad, and that was a revelation about how I didn’t want to do it, and I respected my dad for working this hard. I think he did that as a lesson to me: “Don’t do this, you can do better than this.”

I found that teaching was easy enough after a while. I didn’t know what I was doing at first, but I got some things together and saw what I could do. As I progressed through college, and learned more about classical music, I became a stronger teacher, and just always taught.

It’s felt more natural to me, felt like a comfortable way to live. It paid pretty well. When I came to New York, I just continued the same thing. I would always teach on the side, and eventually I got calls from a few universities, from schools in the New York area, asking me to teach a student, or a student would call me and ask to do an independent study. The shorter story would be that Manhattan School of Music offered me a small number of students in 1984, so I became a part of the initial jazz program there.

I did that for about fourteen years, and did some other schools in New York, and then I got a call from [former Eastman saxophone professor] Ray Ricker, whom I did some educational recordings with in ’84, saying that there was an opening at Eastman.

I said, “Hmm,” and I checked it out, and I interviewed, and eventually ended up coming to Eastman in 1998, and I’ve been here ever since.

The institutional teaching started with Manhattan, because before that, I just taught. I would get back from a tour with Chet Baker and realized I better get some money to pay the rent. It always balanced itself.

I had very loyal students, students who knew I would be out of town, and when I came back, we’d continue where I left off. It’s been a part of what I can do naturally.

How did playing with people like Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Chet Baker, and Gerry Mulligan inform and influence your teaching?

First of all, you get some respect because you’ve done that. When you’re in an institutional setting, you’re accountable for 28 lessons a year. But in New York, I got a pretty good reputation for keeping to an obligation of a certain number of lessons with a student. It certainly adds status when you come back from a tour, and the students like that.

I think I always refined my teaching the best I could. Over the years, I realized that it’s a contract between a student and a teacher… I realized what they would spend in a year, and valued students as clients and really honor that contract. Compare it to some clown club owner who’s jerking me around — for what? The same amount of money as one or two students’ lessons? A student, even as a fairly loyal client, who pays me more than this club owner. I developed that kind of respect for the student.

Also, as I’ve stressed a lot recently, as you get your methodology together, this student has to come to respect the methodology. I think that’s what I got from my own process, and there’s a certain methodology that I demand that the student respects. They can respect or not respect me, but as in classical, there’s a process that you go through and it produces results. It’s like that with jazz too; knowing your modes, etc. You can be some guy who says it’s “creative” and whatever, and I say, “good luck.” If you’ve got a little genius, maybe. If you want to compile everything you’ve learned, you’ve got to develop this respect for the methodology and respect for the teacher.

With college kids – I realized this a few years ago while presenting this to the administrators – the trust that (the students) have … An undergraduate who takes 28 lessons a year, they’re going to study with you 112 times. You’re fairly valuable to the school and to the student. As much as it’s not cost-effective, if those students want to take 112 private lessons with you, you’re valuable. It’s the methodology, not just the cult of personality that fades after you get tired of the guy telling Chet Baker stories, if that’s what he’s going do.

Did you develop this sense of methodology from other Eastman teachers or the “Eastman method”?

Yeah, I’ve been here for 18 full years, so I picked up certain things, but I think it just comes from a refinement of what works. A certain student will come up to me, and I have to think “oh, I won’t lay this thing on them, I’ll lay this other thing on them, and maybe we’ll get around to it all.”

It’s a compilation, and it’s always under review with what can I add that will help. A couple years ago, Barry Harris was doing some stuff, and I thought, “Wow, I’ve got to get that into my teaching.” The way that the students here at Eastman learn about set theory and twelve-tone music is very important. I didn’t know that much about that before I came here, but I really try to use that.

Have you played at the XRIJF before?

The last five years or so, John Nugent has thrown me into Hatch Recital Hall, since he started [presenting performances] there. I don’t push for it, because I know they do a lot of stuff, and how many piano players must want to play that venue? He’s always gracious to me. We have a nice musical relationship, that’s what I appreciate about John; he’s a wonderful musician, and I have a nice friendship with Marc Iacona too, so I think that’s why they throw me in there. [Nugent and Iacona are founders and directors of the XRIJF.]

How does it feel playing at the Jazz Fest?

This is a great jazz festival. This is truly amazing thing. And I didn’t have my bets on it in the beginning. I was a bit skeptical, I have to admit. I wasn’t sure if this city could support as major a Jazz Festival as they wanted to do, and the answer of course is “Yes!”

The county and the region are behind it. I’m over the surprise that it took off the way it did here, but I’m delighted too. It’s done a lot for the jazz program.

At the beginning, people thought I had a lot more to do with the Jazz Festival than I do, so they think that I book acts here. I’m in charge of the three student groups from Eastman on the street on the Six o’Clock Stage, that’s my role.

It’s given a lot of good priority to the jazz department here, and we look good. There’s a follow-through too. The slogan and the t-shirts that say “Great jazz continues at Eastman” — I can claim a little bit of credit in the beginnings of that. I wanted to stress that this is what Eastman does all year. That would be a residual effect. There’s more turnout to our concerts; even when we don’t have a guest artist, we get two, three hundred people in Kilbourn. The Jazz Fest and the little residuals have given Eastman Jazz a much bigger profile.

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Harold Danko (2004)

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