Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dr. Nathan Davis...Jazz Is The Cure

nathan davis
Nathan Davis from The Pitt Chronicle

Nathan Tate Davis, 72, was born in Kansas City, not far from the childhood home of Charlie Parker. He first took up the tenor sax in high school after starting out on trombone, and was soon playing some local gigs.

After Davis graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in music education, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1960 and sent to Germany, where he toured with an army band. He grew to like Europe and its opportunity for jazzmen, and when he left the Army in 1963, he stayed across the Atlantic.

Davis played hard bop with some other ex-pats, and Kenny Clarke heard him honking in Berlin and invited Davis to join him in Paris at the club St. Germain des Pres. He blew his sax with Clarke for seven years. Erroll Garner and the MJQ sat in with them, and he played with Woody Shaw, Donald Byrd, Art Taylor, Ray Charles, and Eric Dolphy.

In 1965, the saxophonist got a call to work as Wayne Shorter's replacement with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on a European tour. At the end of the gig Blakey asked Davis to return stateside with the band. But his daughter had just arrived, and he was happy raising his family on Paris' Left Bank; the answer was "no". Blakey said that Davis was the only musician in America who ever turned him down.

Davis did come home eventually. In 1969, at the urging of Donald Byrd and Dave Baker, he joined the University of Pittsburgh as director of the first full-time, accredited jazz studies program in the nation. He planned to play it by ear during his first three-year contract with Pitt; forty years later, he's still here.

It's sorta ironic. He made a home in Europe because he wanted a chance to play instead of coming back to teach. Que sera, sera.

Pitt's not his only educator gig. He's a past director of the Thelonious Monk Institute Summer Program in Aspen Colorado, spent five years teaching sax at Ohio's Oberlin College, and since 2002, he's been a director & faculty member of the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program, based out of the Kennedy Center.

During his Pitt tenure, he's founded the annual Jazz Seminar and Concert, established a Jazz Hall of Fame, and developed the Jazz Outreach Programs in Dubai, Ghana, Bahia, and Jordan. The program he put together is a model for schools around the country.

Davis found time to earn his doctorate in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan, paid for by the GI Bill. His dissertation was "The Life and Music of Charlie Parker and the Kansas City Environment." Meanwhile, he still performed and recorded a handful of albums as a band leader.

He played with the Charlie Mingus All-Star Band at the Kool Jazz Festival, in Saratoga, New York, in 1982.

In 1985 he got back together with Woody Shaw to form the Paris Reunion Band, an all-star aggregation that included Johnny Griffin, Joe Henderson, Nat Adderley and Slide Hampton.

They broke up after seven years when Shaw passed away, but not before they took their show on the road to Scandinavia, Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland, England, France and Switzerland.

In the 1990s, he formed the band Roots, with brother saxmen Arthur Blythe, Chico Freeman and Sam Rivers, followed by Benny Golson. They toured Scandinavia, Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland, England, France and Switzerland. Guess Davis never quite got over that European thingie.

He played the Blue Note in New York with Dizzy Gillespie and toured as part of The Three Tenors with Grover Washington, Jr. and James Moody.

His discography includes "The Hip Walk," "Peace Treaty," "Happy Girl," "Rules of Freedom," "Makatuka," "Sixth Sense In The Eleventh House," "If," "London by Night," "Faces Of Love," "I'm A Fool To Want You," "The Other Side of the Morning - Dedicated to Eric Dolphy," "Live: Jazz at Pitt: The 25th Anniversary Concert," and 2009's "The Best Of Nathan Davis '65-76."

Good luck finding many of them, though, especially his European tracks. Most were printed by small labels with limited runs, and a couple weren't even released. So putting together a Davis collection is quite the challenge.

His ex-pat buds were hot items when they returned to the states. But when he chose an academic track, the labels treated him as if he didn't exist, even though Davis' playing was as hot as ever. Their loss, and unfortunately, ours too.

Davis has also penned "Writings in Jazz" and "African American Music in Society," while founding and editing the "International Jazz Archives Journal." He's also had a book written about him, Gisela Albus' "Paris to Pittsburgh, a Story in Jazz, the Life of Nathan Davis."

Hey, Pittsburgh was once called "The Foundry of Jazz." Many of its great performers began here and left for greener pastures. Somehow, it seems fitting that the City has claimed a sax man from Kansas City to keep the tradition alive.

Nathan Davis - "Stick Buddy" from the album "If" - 1976

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