Editor’s note: This story is part of a series on the Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame Class of 2020.
When Harold Danko walked into the room, he could feel something, a “vibe” as he called it.
It was the end of the school day and Brookfield High School’s jazz band was set up to rehearse. Band director Elza Wright asked Danko, a 1965 BHS grad, to sit at the piano for “Easy Groove” by Bob Mintzer, and Danko’s musical antenna started to buzz. Danko knows the piece and the composer, having played with him in the ’70s. Mintzer is probably best known as a member of the jazz fusion band the Yellowjackets.
Reading from sheet music, Danko plinked away as the band ran through the piece. When the last note faded out Danko asked Wright if they could play it again; this time, with Danko as soloist.
Danko is all about performance, whether it’s live as a leader or a sideman, or as a recording artist for SteepleChase Records. He never liked practicing, but his thinking about practicing changed about 15 years ago when he heard a quote from Jerry Rice, arguably the greatest wide receiver in the history of the National Football League. When asked about his records, Rice commented that he liked to practice. For Rice it was all about the work, not the acclaim, and Danko, whose heroes when he was young were athletes, considered that Rice wasn’t great just because he showed up on Sundays.
“Enjoy the process of whatever it is you do,” Danko advised an assembly of Brookfield High students. “I truly did not enjoy the process, but over the last 15 years I’ve gotten better at it. I feel like I’m a slow learner with music.”
A slow learner who has been immersed in music since he was young. The younger brother of two professional musicians, Joe and John, Danko was a boy soprano in Elizbeth Couts’ operettas at Stevenson Elementary School, a piano and theory student with Paul Cerbus at Brookfield High School, and a baritone horn player in his high school and college bands.
He bought records with his lunch money, and got heavily into jazz while in high school, but also was in tune with other kinds of music. His buddy Bill Schuster got him into Bob Dylan.
“These memories I have of listening to music with my friends was just as important as playing,” Danko said.
He implored today’s Brookfield students to find communal ways to discover and experience things, just as he did with music.
“It’s very easy to be isolated these days, with your computers or whatever,” he said.
After getting a music education degree at Youngstown State University and halfheartedly looking for a teaching job, he was drafted into the Army. Uncle Sam sent him to New York, and he started making contacts in that busy music scene.
After his discharge, Danko played with Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, Liza Minnelli and Mel Torme, among many others, and traveled “like crazy” for gigs. He settled down a bit when he taught at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
Danko is best known as an improviser, a skill he learned because he could never play a piece perfectly. Whatever you do in life, he said, you will make mistakes. He’s made a career out of his mistakes.
“Go with the flow,” he said, calling himself a “specialist” in “making wrong notes,” but “in a jazz way.”
“I try to make them right,” he said of those wrong notes.