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Nathan Davis

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Acclaimed Ex-patriot Jazz Instrumentalist, Composer and Influential Music Educator
Critically acclaimed jazz instrumentalist, recording artist, composer, record producer, author, and esteemed music educator Nathan Davis came to fame in the American expatriate jazz scene in Europe in the 1960s performing with Eric Dolphy, Kenny Clarke, Dexter Gordon, Donald Bytd, Woody Shaw, and Art Blakely’s Jazz Messengers. In Europe he began his recording career going on to release 20 albums as a leader of his own ensembles, the Paris Reunion Band, and the Roots. Praised by jazz critics Nathan’s albums “Hip Walk”, “Happy Girl”, and “If” are highly sought jazz collectibles. Davis has appeared on the recordings of Eric Dolphy, Art Blakey, Slide Hampton, Duško Gojković, Carmell Jones, Clifford Thornton, Elaine Norwood and Phyllis Chen. A virtuoso player of soprano and tenor saxophones, flute, and bass clarinet Davis has written over 200 jazz compositions, a jazz opera, music for a ballet, film scores, and four symphonies. 

Recruited by the University of Pittsburgh in 1969 Davis founded one of the first university jazz studies programs in the United States. Only Howard and Indiana universities had jazz programs when Nathan arrived in Pittsburgh.  Davis established an undergraduate jazz program, jazz history courses a jazz ensemble and a doctoral program in jazz studies, which includes ethno-musicology, composition and performance. His many students now teach at dozens of colleges and universities around the world.  Today there are over 120 college jazz programs in the U.S.  At Pitt Davis also founded the annual Pitt Jazz Seminar, the first academic jazz seminar of its type in the country. International jazz artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Sonny Still, Grover Washington Jr, Larry Coryell and many others have connected with aspiring musicians and jazz fans in lectures, workshops and concerts for over four decades. A writer he has published several books on jazz and served as the founding editor of the International Jazz Archives Journal. Nathan Davis was honored with the BNY Mellon Jazz Living Legacy Award at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C for his steadfast and uncompromising commitment to jazz education”.  Through his efforts Davis helped jazz became recognized as a high art form on equal footing with classical music.  Now a professor emeritus Davis continues to compose and record. 

The Music of Nathan Davis


An accomplished jazz master who has quietly garnered an impeccable reputation in both the recording and the academic arenas, Nathan Davis is truly one of the living treasures in jazz and one of its most sophisticated spokesmen as well…. He is one of the great balladeers of modern jazz. His recordings are all considered highly collectible by aficionados” – All About Jazz

His playing possesses a sense of urgency and immediacy often missing from the jazz-funk aesthetic, and it transforms “If” into one of the finest recordings of its kind." - Critic Jason Ankeny of Allmusic.com

Kansas City Jazz Foundations

Nathan Tate Davis was born on February 15, 1937 in Kansas City, Kansas. His mother, a gospel singer, and his father a jazz fan stirred his interest in music. Nathan acquired his love of jazz listening to his father’s collection of the Norman Ganz Jazz at the Philharmonic recordings and learning about the great jazz players from his father. At age 14 Nathan began his musical journey in high school learning the trombone, but switched to reed instruments. He mastered flute, bass clarinet and tenor and soprano saxophones. Answering phones for 
Brownie’s Cab,a jitney service, he earned money to buy a Sears and Roebuck Silvertone tenor sax. He began performing with his mother at churches and tea parlors accompanying her singing on religious and popular songs.  A family friend, trumpeter Orville “Piggy” Minor, became Davis's mentor and took him jam play sax at jam sessions led by Jay McShann at Kansas City's Troost Lounge. 

At age 16 Davis and a pianist won a first place prize of $50 in an amateur contest at the Orchid Room in Kansas City. Encouraged by his success Davis came home to tell his mother that he wanted to turn professional. The next day he used his winnings to take a Greyhound bus to Chicago,. He moved in with his self-ordained Pentecostal minister aunt he called “Big Mama” and looked for work in Chicago jazz clubs. He found a job playing in a band with older musicians who called him 'Little K.C.' because he was from Kansas City. He continued to attend school in Chicago and returned to Kansas City to finish high school. A neighbor, who was a trumpeter with the Marching Jayhawks, encouraged Nathan to study music in college. Nathan won a scholarship to the University of Kansas in 1955 and majored in music education. But jazz and saxophones were frowned upon at the University of Kansas and most college music programs in the 1950s. Jazz was consider a form of music not worthy of formal academic study. Instead Davis studied classical music learning piano, oboe, English horn, violin and clarinet. While in college he led a jazz group with trumpeter Carmell Jones and other Kansas City musicians. They performed at fraternity and sorority parties and the student union with classmate Wilt Chamberlain sometimes sitting in on conga drums. Davis earned a Bachelor of Music Education graduating in 1959.

European Ex patriot Jazz  Years and First Recordings

In the late 1950s and 1960s many African American jazz musicians moved to Europe to escape discrimination and to perform for audiences who revered jazz. Their they found a supporting cultural of clubs, jazz festivals, radio programs, television shows, and academic institutions that respected jazz. Paris became the center of a thriving expatriate jazz scene. Nathan Davis became part of the Parisian jazz scene. On leaving college Davis was drafted into the U.S. Army, sent to the Navy School of Music for training and was stationed with the 298th Army Band in Berlin. He traveled with the Army Band entertaining troops in Europe at USO shows. Davis taught arranging to other musicians and won the European All-Army Contest for an arrangement he wrote. In the Army band Davis became friends with fellow sax player Joe Henderson, a Pittsburgh native. In the evening hours they performed in Berlin jazz clubs. On completion of his three years of service in 1963, Davis was given an overseas discharge allowing him to stay in Berlin to work as a musician in clubs. Nathan, Joe Harris and trumpeter Benny Bailey found work performing with the SFB big band on Radio Free Berlin. Pittsburgh born drummer Kenny Clark heard Nathan perform at the Expatriate Americans in Europe concert and asked him to come to Paris. Nathan moved to France to play with Kenny Clark at the famous club St. Germain des Pres in Paris. He stayed in Paris seven years performing seven nights a week with Clark and others. Working with Kenny Clark Nathan performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Sonny Criss, Carmen McCrae, Nancy Wilson and Pittsburgher Erroll Garner and other jazz stars.

Davis performed with tenor saxophonist Eric Dolphy in 1964 at the Paris Chat Qui Pechˆ club and recorded with Dolphy on his last sessions made for the French radio station ORTF. Dolphy died 18 days later.  Davis’s work with Dolphy is found on four releases “Last Date”, “Unrealized Tapes”, “Haima” and “The Complete Last Recordings: In Hilversum & Paris 1964” 

Davis toured Europe in 1965 backing Ray Charles.  He also toured as a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers replacing Wayne Shorter. Blakey offered Nathan a permanent job in the band as saxophonist and musical director, but with a newborn daughter in Paris he did not want to be on the road and turned down the offer.  His work with Blakey was released on the album "Jazz Icons: Art Blakey Live in '65".  Davis recorded on Duško Gojkovi’s “Swinging Macedonia” (1966), Slide Hampton’s Mellow-Dy (1968) and his old Kansas City school mate Carmell Jones’s “Carmell Jones in Europe” (1969).   

Solo Recordings and Radio and Television Works

Davis recorded his first two solo albums in 1965 for the German label Saba.  “Happy Girl” recorded in January featured trumpeter Woody Shaw, pianist Larry Young, drummer Billy Brook and bassist Jimmy Wood.  “The Hip Walk” recorded in September included Kenny Clarke on drums and trumpeter Carmell Jones.  Both recording earned high praise.  Downbeat said his music had “boundless enthusiasm” and “impressive improvisation. Crescendo magazine wrote that Davis was producing “some of the most invigorating and inspired sounds on the current Paris jazz scene.”   Davis recorded his third album, a tribute to 
John Coltrane, "Rules of Freedom in Paris in 1967 working with bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Art Taylor and pianist Hampton Hawes.  It was release on Polydor in 1969.  The "Nathan Davis Quartet ‎– Jazz Concert In A Benedictine Monastery" was released in 1970.   The compilation "Two Originals" released in (1998) contains all the tracks from "Happy Girl" and "The Hip Walk".  Cuts from those Davis's early European albums were reissued on the “Nathan Davis: Best of 65-76” album released in 2009.  

In addition to writing music for his own recordings Davis also composed and arranged music for European radio, television and films.  He was a soloist on radio and television station in 11 European countries.  In 967 he became the staff arranger and composer from Belgium radio and television.  

Studies at the Sorbonne and Teaching

Nathan supplemented his performance include by teaching saxophone.  In 1967 one of Nathan's saxophone students, who was studying ethno-musicology at the Sorbonne University of Paris, invited him to sit in on a class at the Sorbonne.   Excited to have a jazz star in their class and students their professor asked Nathan to give a series of four lectures to them in French about jazz.   Nathan then became a student at the Sorbonne working toward the equivalent of a master's degree.  He took classes in ethno-musicology under Claudie Marcel-Dubois and studied composition with Andre Hodeir in 1968.  Drawing upon his degree in music education and his Sorbonne studies Nathan began teaching jazz history and improvisation at the Schola Cantorum de Paris and at small conservatories in Germany and France.  He founded the jazz studies program at the Paris American Academy.

Pitt Recruits Davis From Paris to Found Jazz Program

n 1969 the University of Pittsburgh decided to initiate a jazz studies program within its department of music.  
Bob Snow, chairman of the music department at Pitt conferred with jazz composer and professor David Baker who had founded the country's first jazz program at Indiana University in 1966.  
Having heard about Nathan Davis' reputation in Paris as a performer and teacher, Baker recommended him to Pitt's music chairman.  David Baler saw Nathan as a a club-wise jazz musician who had music education degree, teaching experience, and who had founded a jazz program.  Pitt made Davis the offer.  Trumpeters Donald Byrd and Dizzy Gillespie were urged Nathan to accept the offer and return to the United States because universities were looking for jazz musicians with degrees to teach.  Donald Byrd had returned to the U.S. to found the second jazz program at Howard University in 1968.  Kenny Clarke also advised Davis that he should take the job.  He told Nathan that when he was a kid growing up in Pittsburgh there were few African Americans teaching at Pitt and he should take the job to tell the truth about jazz.  Nathan took his friend's advice and accepted Pitt's offer. 

Nathan Davis came to the University of Pittsburgh in 1969 to found the undergraduate jazz studies program.  It was the university level jazz studies program founded in the U.S.  Davis intended to stay just three years but ended up staying for four decades. He began by put together a curriculum of courses that included  the history of Jazz, African American Music, music theory, jazz Improvisation and jazz Arranging.  His jazz history class become one of the most popular courses at Pitt.  Nathan also taught saxophone and founded Pitt's Jazz ensemble.  

Davis founded the Pitt Jazz Ensemble in 1969 with 20 members drawn from the Pitt student body.  Within six months of their formation they performed on WQED TV and the Three Rivers Arts Festival.  In 1973, Nathan Davis took the the Jazz Ensemble to the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland where a live LP titled "Festival Jazz de Montreux 1973" was recorded.   The ensemble has performed across the U.S. and in Brazil and Trinidad.  The ensemble began a ten year term in 1990 in Jamica spending two weeks each year performing in residence.  The ensemble continues to perform over forty years later.  Alumni of the ensemble who have gone on to professional performing careers include pianists Geri Allen and Vince Genova, bassist Dwayne Dolphin, Mokoto Kyria , saxophonist Robbie Klein and  trumpeter Dave Detwiler.

Davis Launches Annual Pitt Jazz Seminar

Shortly after arriving in Pittsburgh Nathan received a phone from Art Blakey who was in town with his band to perform at the Crawford Grill.  Art told Davis to grab his horn and join the band at the Crawford.  Blakey introduce Nathan as his former saxophonist and ask the audience to support the new Pitt Jazz program.  After the show Nathan invited Blakey and the band to perform on campus and to meet with students and faculty members.  Over a 1,000 people turned out for Blakey's show at Pitt's Stephen Foster Memorial on Oct 24, 1970.  Seeing the enthusiasm of the musicians and students Davis decide to create an annual event bring top jazz musician to Pitt to meet with and perform for students.

Davis launched the annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert in 1971.  Seminars were held on campus and the concert was held at Pittsburgh's historic Carnegie Music Hall.  At the seminars were presentations about the music business, the history of jazz, and instrumental workshops given by the world class musicians.  The second annual seminar held Oct 18 to 20 1972 featured Davis's jazz education supporters David Baker and Donald Byrd along with jazz historian Leonard Feather, drummer, Max Roach and Thad Jones,  Tickets were $10 for the entire seminar.  The Pittsburgh Jazz seminar has been held for over forty years hosting a many jazz superstars. 

Doctoral Jazz Program

To advance to a full professorship he earned a Ph.D.in Ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University in 1974 with his dissertation "The Life and Music of Charlie Parker and the Kansas City Environment."  Nathan established doctoral program in jazz studies that required the study of ethnomusicology, musicology, composition and performance.  In addition to writing a dissertation, doctoral student must compose original jazz music for big band and, string orchestra ensembles.  

Releases on the Pittsburgh based label Segue and Tomorrow International


Davis continued to compose and record in Pittsburgh. Segue Records, founded at the WRS Motion Picture Labs on Semple Street in Oakland, asked Nathan to help them launch the new label as their first artist. Working with WRS sound engineer Olaf Kuuskler Davis recorded an album entirely of his own compositions titled “Makatuka”. Released in 1971, it featured drummer Roger Humphries, Dr. Nelson Harrison on Trombone, pianist Don DePaolis, bassist Virgil Walters and other Pittsburgh musicians. His second release original compositions on Segue engineered by Kuuskler was the 1972 album “6th Sense in the 11th House “ with Roland Hanna on piano, Richard Davis on bass, and drummer Alan Also included was Davis’s memorable rendition of “The Shadow of Your Smile” performed on bass clarinet.

Segue records went out of business after losing money on pressing records for several unsuccessful rock music releases.  To continue to record Davis founded his own label he named “Tomorrow International Records.  Backed by grant money from Gulf Oil Davis released another album of original music titled“Suite for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” It was recorded at Pittsburgh’s Audio Innovators by engineer Don Singleton with pianist Frank Cunimondo, guitarist Eric Johnson, Joe Harris and others.  Critic Jason Ankeny of Allmusic.com wrote: "this is Davis' most ambitious and cinematic LP, operating on a canvas as vast as its creator's imagination."

Davis “If” album was recorded at Jeree Studios and released in 1976.  Critic Jason Ankeny of Allmusic.com rates “If” as a soul jazz classic writing “his playing possesses a sense of urgency and immediacy often missing from the jazz-funk aesthetic, and it transforms If into one of the finest recordings of its kind."  
Davis’s 1982 release“Faces of Love”, was recorded at Sound Heights Recording Studios, Brooklyn, NY.  and mixed at Jeree Recording Studios. 

“London By Night”, recorded at Boathouse Studios London, was released on Tomorrow International in 1987. Working with Groover Washington Jr. Davis recorded the 1995 Tomorrow International release "I'm A Fool To Want You" at Hillside Sound Studios, Englewood, NJ, on December 22, 1994.

Paris Reunion Band and The Roots

The Paris Reunion Band was a tribute to the expatriate American Paris jazz scene and its leader drummer Kenny Clarke.  British music writer Mike Hennessey conceived the idea.   Davis joined musicians that he had worked with in Paris to form the neo-bebop Paris Reunion Band in 1985.  The band included at different times Johnny Griffin, Joe Henderson, Shaw, Nat Adderley, Dizzy Reece, Slide Hampton, Kenny Drew, Jimmy Woode and Idris Muhammad.  Kenny Clarke died on the eve of the band's first European tour. From 1985 through 1986 1985 they made annual tours performing in Scandinavia, Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland, England, France and Switzerland. Their performances, recorded for national radio and television, were release in 16 live albums. They recorded the studio album "French Cooking"  in the summer of 1985.  

Davis formed the post-bop band Roots in 1991.
The idea for Roots came from Mike Hennesey who want a group with saxophones that would pay tribute to all of the great saxophone players in jazz. Member of Roots included sax players Nathan Davis, Sam Rivers, Chico Freeman, and Arthur Blythe along with Santi Debriano on bass, Idris Muhammad on drums, guitarist Helmut Kagerer, and pianist and organist Don Pullen . They released three albums "Stablemates" (1992), "Saying Something" (1995), and the live album "Salute to the Saxophone" in 2004. "Saying Something" was recorded live at Muddy's Club, Weinheim, Germany.  Music writer Mike Hennessey produced the recordings.  Roots toured Scandinavia, Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland, England, France and Switzerland in 1995.
 


21st Century Adventures

Nathan Davis continued to compose and record jazz in the 21st century and branched out into opera and ballet.   Davis's jazz opera “Just Above My Head” based upon a novel by James Baldwin premiered at the Capa Theater in Pittsburgh in 2004.  In 2005, Davis released "The Other Side of the Morning", dedicated to Eric Dolphy., on which Davis plays soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, flute, clarinet and bass clarinet.   His piano-cello duet “Matryoshka Blues” was premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York City n 2013.

Nathan Davis retired from the University of Pittsburgh in 2013 after 44 years.  He left a lasting legacy on the international jazz scene and kept jazz alive in Pittsburgh.  His compositions and recordings with his own ensembles and with the Paris Ex-patriots are jazz classics.  During the 1930s through the 1950 Pittsburgh jazz musicians went to the Musicians Club and the clubs of the Hill District to learn jazz and to jam with the world's best.  That learning environment was lost when the Hill District was destroyed in the name of "urban renewal".  Nathan Davis gave young jazz musicians a chance to learn from club-wise mentors through his founding of the Pitt Jazz Studies Program, the Pitt Jazz Ensemble, and the Pitt Jazz Seminar.  He brought jazz to respect in the world of academiac music with his establishment the International Jazz Archives Journal and his jazz programs.