The definition of jazz, legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter said in a recent interview, is “I dare you.” Few musicians lived that truth more fully than Del Dako, a Toronto horn player whose headlong improvisations in music matched his bold approach to life – one that often took him well beyond the comfort zone of normal bourgeois existence.
Often inspiring, occasionally infuriating and always original, Mr. Dako marched to a drummer playing in what jazz musicians used to call “Toronto time,” always pushing the beat. As a whitewater canoeist, he pioneered descents of remote rivers once considered impossible in open boats. When he broke his neck in a mountain bike accident at the age of 47 and lost the ability to play saxophone, he turned his attack to the vibraphone. When he learned that the lymphoma that afflicted him had become terminal, he shot himself with a rifle in the back yard of his Scarborough home on Jan. 19. He was 58.
Del was born in 1954 to Victor and Julie Dako, enterprising Hungarian immigrants who prospered well enough to enroll both Del and his younger brother, Peter, in Toronto’s prestigious Upper Canada College. His risk-seeking childhood enthusiasms included firefights with Roman candles and the invention of an underwater breathing apparatus powered by a bicycle pump.
“Victor saw what Del and I were doing and ripped the pump from me while Del was at the bottom of the deep end,” recalls family friend David Dobkin. “Del sputtered to the surface, brick weights tied to his waist, gasping for air. One of his more than nine lives was spent.”
Mr. Dako’s expected ascension up the social ladder was interrupted by a teenaged encounter with the music of Charlie Parker, which knocked him sideways into the rarefied world of modern jazz. He picked up the alto saxophone in emulation of his new hero and learned it well enough in school bands to be accepted at York University’s then-new jazz program. Among his fellow students were current luminaries Al Henderson and Barry Elmes of Time Warp (both now York University professors), Jane Bunnett and Mark Eisenman.
Mr. Dako’s career as a professional musician began auspiciously with a date at the Montreux Jazz Festival in a quintet made up of fellow York grads. Over the next 30 years, he became a well-known fixture of the Toronto jazz scene, playing as a regular with the Jim Galloway Wee Big Band and the recently resurrected Jive Bombers, as well as backing visiting stars such as Slim Gaillard and Eddie (Cleanhead) Vinson.
Mr. Dako began doubling on the baritone sax with the Jive Bombers, and after a hesitant start learned to tease a fluid and lyrical sound out of the big horn. Throughout the 1990s he was regularly named Canada’s top baritone player by Jazz Report magazine and attracted a regular coterie of bari enthusiasts to his Toronto dates. During that time he undertook two cross-Canada tours, fronting his own small groups, and released two albums – Balancing Act (1995) and Vindaloo (1998).
Prodded by his practical-minded father, he also trained for an alternate career and became an itinerant teacher for the Scarborough Board of Education, spreading the gospel of jazz in a reputed wasteland he soon came to love. Among his students were Ed Robertson and Steven Page, who went on to form the pop group Barenaked Ladies. “He had a huge influence on all of us in the band,” Mr. Robertson recalled in a recent interview. “He was a great player and he really inspired kids to listen to music in a different way, which was to get off of the sheet music and into the song.”
Never a conventional hipster, Mr. Dako was also an outdoor enthusiast as comfortable in the wilderness as he was in the downtown joints where jazz once thrived. Paddling with the Ontario Voyageurs Kayak Club on weekends and undertaking long northern canoe trips every summer, he stood out for his skill and daring while paddling whitewater in a solo canoe. Winters found him in the same backcountry on skis.
Those adventures largely came to an end in a freak cycling accident in 2001 that broke Mr. Dako’s neck and left him unable to play the saxophone. With typical determination, he applied himself to the vibraphone and soon he was playing regular dates, backed by some of the city’s foremost musicians. But his decline was real and he struggled with depression in the wake of the accident. A diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma a year ago was his final challenge. Mr. Dako pursued romance vigorously throughout his life but never formed a lasting attachment. His marriage to Linda Hosso of Toronto ended after five years and produced no children. He was never domesicated.
Del’s exit was as bold as his life. He saw what lay ahead and, as he had so often in his life, took his own path.