Jazz Piano Lesson #9: Interview with Harold Danko


One of my first blog posts at a site I keep online but no longer update—that would be http://www.polishookstudio.com—was an interview with the great jazz pianist and teacher Harold Danko. A link to that interview, which is what this post is about, follows at the end. But, let it be said again right here at the beginning: Harold is a great jazz pianist and teacher.

Actually, just in case you’d like to go directly to the interview:


Context and tradition

If you didn’t press on that link, or if you did and just now you returned to this site—in those cases, background information, context, and thoughts about tradition—they follow. The tradition, as jazz musicians refer to it. Harold’s contributed to the tradition.

First impressions, the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and tradition

The first time I heard Harold play was at the Village Vanguard in in 1975. He was the pianist with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. If you haven’t come across that group, or the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra into which it evolved, both are well worth hearing—we must-hear-them-both, as it were.

Backstory : the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra came together in the 1960s and played every Monday night at the Village Vanguard. Every Monday night for years, that is. There were a lot of Monday nights I spent at Vanguard listening to that group.

Pepper Adams, Cecil Bridgewater, Jerry Dodgion, Roland Hanna, Walter Norris, Rufus Reid, Jimmy Ponder: they were among the great musicians at the Vanguard whom I saw and heard on those Monday nights. Every group member came from—if such a thing exists—the Who’s Who of jazz. So while I’ve listed a few names, they’re really just the tip of a huge jazz iceberg.

Thad Jones eventually left the band. Mel Lewis became its leader. Mel passed away some years later. The band continued as the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Andy every Monday night they’re still at the Vanguard—50+ years after Thad and Mel, as they’re usually called, formed that band. Here’s a video of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra prior to Harold’s Thad-and-Mel tenure.

In any case, 50+ years—still at the Vanguard—that’s a lot of tradition. Not to mention the Village Vanguard has been open continually since the 1930s or so. THAT TOO is a lot of tradition.

On the role of the tradition in jazz: It’s possible if not necessary: To truly understand jazz, to really get to the ins, the outs—the bottom of it all, as it were—there’s an imperative: Know the tradition. I’m not certain but there may not be a thing such as a great jazz musician who doesn’t know the tradition.

A great jazz musician who doesn’t know the tradition? That’s an imaginary monster!

To the idea that knowing the tradition is essential, so the story goes: J.S. Bach spent many nights by candlelight copying scores by other composers. That’s how he learned about tradition.

He wrote the tradition by hand, literally. So the story goes.

Harold Danko

The first time I met Harold was in NYC in 1985, a decade after I first heard him at the Vanguard with Thad and Mel. I was working towards a graduate degree at the Manhattan School of Music. Harold was part of the MSM faculty.

Among things Harold did at MSM was to teach a required class for jazz pianists. It might well have been called—or it should have been called—All The Things All Jazz Pianists Should Know.

What we learned and the lesson

The scenario: If there was a piano in the midst of of things—the midst of things being something having to do with music—so how could there then not be a piano in the midst of things? Well, if a piano was in the midst of things, Harold knew about that scenario.

Specific things I remember from the class were he gave us improvisation exercises he composed and used himself. I recall in his class listening to a recording of the last movement of Prokofiev’s 7th Piano Sonata. Harold called it the boogie-woogie sonata, or something like that.

At least once we spent a class playing drop-the-needle-on-a-recording. The goal was to identify the recording, what it was, who played on it, etc.

All need dropping and identifying was done fast as possible. Of course to do that kind of thing one had to listen to a lot of recordings. That was the point: listen!

Whatever Harold may have called Prokofiev’s Precipito movement, here are four versions by four fabulous pianists. A lesson learned back then and retained since then into the now of right now is: LISTEN!

The interview

The interview with Harold follows. But, first, about Harold’s final words in the interview—they’re classic. They’re so classic that they could be or should be the opening statement for this post.

Those words:

We don’t learn to improvise. We improvise to learn.

The interview: with Harold Danko:


At the end of the interview are fabulous links Harold selected that document his performances. And the image at the beginning of this post? Google Harold Danko and click on images.