Pitt jazz professor dies at 81


Nathan Davis, former professor in Pitt’s Department of Music and renowned jazz musician, died Monday. (Image via University of Pittsburgh)

Nathan Davis, a former professor at Pitt’s department of music and renowned jazz musician, died on Sunday from natural causes. He was 81.

Davis came to Pitt in 1969 as the director of the jazz studies program. During his time at Pitt, he founded and directed the University’s annual jazz seminar. He also helped create the International Academy of Jazz Hall of Fame — located inside the William Pitt Union — as well as the William Russell Robinson Recording Studio and the Pitt Jazz Ensemble.

Davis also set up the Sonny Rollins International Jazz Archives and taught music courses, including African American Music, Jazz Improvisation, Saxophone and History of Jazz — an introductory course that still uses Davis’ “Writings in Jazz” textbook.

“We got a history,” Davis said in a 2008 interview with The Pitt News. “And it’s just as valid as anybody else’s history, and we need jazz people teaching it.”

Outside of Pitt, Davis founded the Jazz Studies Program at the Paris American Academy in France and conducted extensive research in the field of ethnomusicology across Tunisia, Brazil, Turkey, Morocco and the Caribbean.

Davis earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Kansas and a doctorate in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He played in the U.S. Army Band in Berlin after graduating from Wesleyan until he accepted the offer to start the jazz program at Pitt.

He was primarily known as a talented saxophonist, but also played the bass clarinet and the flute. He performed with artists such as Ray Charles and Kenny Clarke.

Then-Chancellor Mark Nordenberg spoke at a 2004 press conference about the impact Davis had on the music community.

“Nathan has always been one to reach out and attract new music-lovers,” Nordenberg said. “[Davis] has left his musical mark wherever he and his work have traveled.”

Davis received the BNY Mellon Jazz Living Legacy Award in 2013 for his achievements at Pitt and abroad following his retirement that June.

“I wanted to bring dignity — the same dignity and respect afforded physicians, philosophers and other scholars in academia — to jazz,” Davis said in 2013. “And that, I think, I was able to do.”

A previous version of this story reported that Davis passed away on Monday. This is incorrect. He died on Sunday. The story has been updated to reflect this. The Pitt News regrets this error.