Pitt’s Jazz Week a tradition 39 years in the making

By Natalie Bell

When Nathan Davis started Pitt Jazz Week, he was simply trying to fill a desire students had for… When Nathan Davis started Pitt Jazz Week, he was simply trying to fill a desire students had for jazz and to share his expertise.

“In a way, it wasn’t me being so much visionary as the time. It was the time,” Davis said.

The jazz studies program at Pitt and Pitt Jazz Week are inextricably linked. The latter was born out of an effort to educate students by introducing them to some jazz greats.

When Davis arrived to teach a new jazz curriculum at Pitt, there were only a handful of such programs throughout the country. Prior to coming to Pitt, he’d been living in Paris, working as a musician and teaching a summer course at the Paris American Academy. At the time, European jazz programs were more numerous than those at American universities, and Davis felt American students were missing out.

“I said, well if I ever teach, that’s what we ought to have in America, that’s where it’s from. So when I got here and I saw the opportunity, I did it,” he said.

Pitt solicited Davis for a position at Pitt. He received a mix of encouragement and negativity when he decided to accept the professorship. Some of his peers felt that racial issues would be problematic and that it would be impossible to teach jazz, while others felt Davis was being given a valuable chance to share Jazz knowledge with people formerly unaware.

“Then Jimmy Clark, who was from Pittsburgh, said to me, ‘Go back and spread the word and tell the truth,’” Davis said.

Soon, however, he saw just how responsive students would be to a jazz curriculum at Pitt. The first day of Davis’ History of Jazz class, about 250 students were waiting eagerly to hear his lecture.

“I think students were hungry for it in America,” he said.

Davis had been teaching at Pitt for only a few months when Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers came in to Pittsburgh in 1970. After playing with them, Davis invited the group to come speak and play at Pitt. With no more advertisement than word of mouth and perhaps hand flyers, enough students and teachers swarmed to see the group to pack the Stephen Foster Memorial building.

A black Pittsburgh photographer, Teenie Harris, photographed the event. The novelty of Davis having just arrived from Paris combined with the recent advent of jazz curriculums at universities helped the event make it into the day’s leading jazz publication, DownBeat Magazine.

“It was just impromptu basically,” Davis said of the birth of Pitt Jazz Week.

The event was incredibly successful, enough so that Davis continued to pull in all kinds of names in jazz to come and play at Pitt. The institution of jazz programs at universities and the enthusiasm from students were due recognition for jazz and the artists involved.

“We were being treated as good as the classical cats,” Davis said.

However, there were times of difficulty for Pitt Jazz Week and the jazz program, in general. Davis had to seek funding for the musicians who were coming and sharing their talents for free. There were times that the “jazz guys” were not permitted to play certain instruments.

In one instance, the jazz band was made to rehearse in an unheated building off campus. Davis, along with the involved students, banded together and sat in on the dean’s office to demand better conditions.

“I’m the kind of guy, you challenge me, you got a fight. So, I dug in and here we are … One thing, I got a positive attitude about the whole thing,” he said.

Because he continued (and still continues) to play as a professional musician, Davis was able to discuss his program with people all over the world, spreading awareness of Jazz Week.

“I would always put Pitt out there. You know, no matter what place. If I’m in Africa, Turkey, wherever, I’d say, ‘I’m at the University of Pittsburgh, this is what I do.’”

Pitt Jazz Week is now entering its 39th year. It has seen numerous world-famous jazz musicians and has made a name for Pitt and Pittsburgh in the world jazz scene. Davis shared an anecdote that, while doing an interview, his questioner remarked that no matter where you went, if you mentioned jazz and Pittsburgh, the Pitt jazz program and Davis would inevitably come up.

Still though, it’s not the recognition that keeps Davis working to make Pitt Jazz Week happen year after year. It’s that the students continue to have a desire to learn about Jazz and hear talented Jazz musicians play. That’s what really makes putting the event together worthwhile.

“I love the students, too, because I would always tell everybody, this is for the students. I was happy that students wanted to know about [jazz]. I mean, for me, that was the whole thing. It was about the students.”