The Best Advice, Part V: Harold Danko

During my graduate studies at Eastman, my trumpet professor Clay Jenkins took a semester-long sabbatical leave. Remembering that at least one other trumpet student had done this in the past, I approached then-department chair and professor of jazz piano Harold Danko about the possibility of taking my weekly lessons with him during Clay’s absence. I had long sought information I could apply to the trumpet from great players of other instruments. As a student at Ithaca College, I had frequently found myself the only attendee from outside a particular instrumental studio at the recitals and master classes of guest saxophonists, classical guitarists, and others. From the saxophonists I heard the term “voicing” and was able to relate it to what some brass players might call the “shape” of a given pitch, or, one of my least favorite terms in brass pedagogy, the “oral cavity.” That has always sounded like a dental problem to me. The guitarists sparked in me a recognition that uninhibited articulations are defined by releases, not engagements, and that the end of what we call “tonguing” is where the sound actually starts, just as the release of the string from finger, nail, or pick is the moment at which resonance can blossom. Watching and listening closely to great performers on these other instruments filled me with ideas to experiment with and unburdened me, to an extent, from the problem of thinking that I knew how the trumpet worked. Still, I had never studied privately on an ongoing basis with anyone who was not a trumpet player until this period of time with Harold Danko.

Harold was blunt about his distaste for horn players who act as their own accompanists all the time, constantly providing the responses to all of their own calls, and over-embellishing between phrases with non-thematic flourishes. Aside from all the fat this leaves on the player’s solos, it sabotages opportunities for collaborative playing by the rest of the members of the band. And the fact is, when you have the luxury of playing with such a masterful collaborator as Harold Danko, you would be a fool not to leave room for him. Overplaying in the fashion he so disliked can happen for a number of reasons, but in my opinion, there are three common causes which often occur in combination with each other:

  1. Being an egotistical performer who is more interested in impressing people with shallow tricks than in communicating through music.

  2. A failure to recognize the possibilities orchestration affords, even in duo, trio, or quartet settings. Leaving space is not supposed to be done solely to rest one’s chops or catch a breath, although we’ve all heard those players whose phrase lengths are conspicuously similar, and largely dictated by the relative emptiness of their lungs rather than the integrity of their spontaneous compositions. When writing a piece for an ensemble inside or outside of the jazz realm, a great composer has formal and aesthetic considerations in mind that dictate where the piece will go, what it will do, and which member of the ensemble will play a particular role at a given moment. At times, technical concerns will lead to revisions of the parts based upon playability. Many (mostly younger) jazz soloists go at this backwards, first finding the limits of technique (and with them the limits of an audience’s patience), and then inhabiting the limits as much as possible while musical priorities go by the wayside. Goodbye, development!

  3. (The most common.) Force of habit. It is easier for many of us to rely on filling up available space than to trust others to fill it (or leave it empty) in a satisfying way. Learning to let others contribute and to spontaneously create without forcing every last thing we’ve ever practiced to come out the end of the horn takes work and commitment. Also, it can be hard to find musical partners worthy of this kind of trust.

Aside from his help shaping my thinking about common practice jazz improvisation, Harold left me with another boulder-sized idea to reckon with: Trumpet players listen for things in trumpet playing that other people do not. Not only do players of other instruments value qualities other than those trumpet players tend to focus on, but audiences do as well. What a trumpet “should” sound like is up for far more debate than I was willing to entertain at the time this notion began to make its way through my thick skull. As a trumpet teacher, my overarching rule that I have shared with numerous students has long been that “if it sounds good and it doesn’t hurt, you’re probably doing it right.” The problem here is that what “sounds good” is not set in stone. Sounds good when? How? To whom? In what context? There are a lot of ways of sounding good depending on what you are playing, who you are playing with, and who is listening to you. Plus, you can’t please all the people all the time. Some people will revere you even on your worst night, and others could hear everything you’ve ever done and hate every single note. I have a lot more questions than answers on this subject, but one thing is very clear to me: If you plan on playing for a variety of audiences, learn from a variety of teachers.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments below. Thank you for reading!

Nikola TomicComment