Davis the anchor of Pitt’s jazz program

By Alex Avakian

‘ ‘ ‘ Nathan Davis comfortably sprawls himself out in a chair behind an oak desk littered with… ‘ ‘ ‘ Nathan Davis comfortably sprawls himself out in a chair behind an oak desk littered with the regalia of an accomplished life in music and academia. Folders, papers, CDs, music books and jazz magazines are strewn about. ‘ ‘ ‘ A gentleman with lightly peppered hair and a matching mustache, Davis is now the director of Pitt jazz studies. He’s steadily built a career as a premier jazz musician, composer, author, teacher and more since as early as age 12, when he bought his very first saxophone. ‘ ‘ ‘ Davis now only spends one day a week in his first-floor office in the Pitt music building, but when he’s here, he seems to enjoy himself. ‘ ‘ ‘ At 71, he is preparing to retire soon. But he knows he’s got at least a few more concerts, seminars and lessons left in him. He has much more to do before he passes the torch of one of America’s first academic jazz studies programs ‘mdash; the one that he started himself, from scratch, 39 years ago. ‘ ‘ ‘ Early in Davis’ life, he began to hone his musical ability and quickly rose to the forefront of many bands as a result. He has since traveled all around the world, ‘playing everywhere from whorehouses to the White House,’ said Davis. Jazz and teaching are things that have seemed to come naturally to this artist and educator, and since his career began to bloom in 1949 Davis has regularly redefined himself, his art and his profession. ‘ ‘ ‘ Davis’ roots stretch back to the center of the United States in Kansas City, Mo., where he lived two blocks from one of the most significant jazz musicians of his generation, Charlie Parker, who would eventually influence Davis’ 1974 Ph.D. dissertation at Wesleyan University. ‘ ‘ ‘ Davis also shared his neighborhood with local gang members, and violence wasn’t unknown. Growing up toward the end of Kansas City’s jam session era of the late ’20s and ’30s, Davis found himself literally engulfed by the city’s sprawling urban jazz and blues scene. ‘ ‘ ‘ In a rundown house living with his mother, a 12-year-old Davis carefully listened to the musings of a local saxophonist called Little June, who lived across the street. Despite not owning a musical instrument of any kind, June regularly taught Davis technique and theory. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘It’s when I found out I had, I call it, ‘partial photographic memory,” said Davis. ‘I could look at a page, and I could still see the page, like, months later, and I had memorized the fingering.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ Davis soon started working at a jitney cab service, earning $7.50 a week answering telephones. In time, with a little help from his parents, he had earned enough money to buy his very first saxophone, the Silvertone by Sears and Roebucks Co. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘Silvertone was the cheapest of the cheapest. You know coming from Sears it couldn’t be too great,’ said Davis. ‘ ‘ ‘ After graduating from the University of Kansas in 1960 with a degree in music education, Davis was drafted into the Army and sent to Europe. He would ultimately spend seven and a half years of his life there, reaching the peak of his performing career playing in the most popular Paris night clubs with jazz greats Kenny Clark, Woody Shaw, Donald Byrd and Eric Dolphy, to name a small fraction. He would also meet his wife of nearly 50 years, Ursula; have a daughter; release his first full-length album, Happy Girl, in 1964; and build his name to celebrity status, which would eventually entitle him to develop Pitt’s first degree-granting jazz studies program in 1969. ‘ ‘ ‘ Lecturing at Pitt one year before, distinguished composer and teacher David Baker, who had created the first American jazz studies program aIndiana University, recommended Davis to head Pitt’s new jazz program. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘There was a time when we were an isolated phenomenon, particularly in academia,’ said Baker. ‘But Nathan was one of those people who I think had the vision to see that the academy was going to have to accept us on equal terms. It just seemed to me, if I was going to recommend somebody, I wanted to recommend somebody who actually had a major reputation as a player. A lot of other people, they’ve already been teaching before they earned their stripes. Nathan Davis brought that to the job.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ Davis was finally hired in 1969, along with his current co-worker Don Franklin, professor of baroque music studies. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘Pitt was expanding their offerings and really developing an undergraduate program in various areas,’ said Franklin. ‘So we both in a way were on the ground floor of building and developing Pitt’s department of music in the early 1970s.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ One of the first of his kind, Davis had academic possibilities that seemed endless. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘I got off the plane (in Pittsburgh), and there were 250 jazz students waiting to take the jazz history course,’ said Davis. ‘Me being a real live jazz musician right out of the field, like, from the night club into the classroom, it was wide open for us.’ Since taking the position at Pitt, Davis has developed a premier jazz program and led the recording of almost a half dozen studio albums. Also, he has created the International Academy of Jazz Hall of Fame, the Sonny Rollins International Jazz Archives, the annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert and the state-of-the-art William R. Robinson recording studio, which was developed by Davis’ son, a lawyer and sound engineer in New York City. ‘ ‘ ‘ And now, Davis is preparing for the 38th annual Pitt Jazz Seminar, celebrating music that’s been not just Davis’ love, but a national cornerstone for decades. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘We got a history,’ said Davis. ‘And it’s just as valid as anybody else’s history, and we need jazz people teaching it.’