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Sean Jones Remembers Nathan Davis

The trumpeter honors his former teacher, the saxophonist and University of Pittsburgh jazz studies chair (2/15/37 - 4/8/18)

Nathan Davis
Nathan Davis

I met Nathan when I was an undergrad. I was invited to the Ravinia Institute, right outside Chicago, and they were doing a youth all-stars kind of program where we all got together and wrote music. Nathan was one of the lead faculty members. I remember him being such a nice man, and he had stories for days. He would always talk about the Paris Reunion Band. He would talk about Woody Shaw all the time, about the quiet fire that Woody had. But that’s partially because I would ask questions about Woody. I was really into his playing at that time, and Nathan would give me those records and let me check out some of their bootleg recordings.

Later on, when I’d moved to Pittsburgh [and started teaching at Duquesne University], I would ask him for advice in academia. We began talking more when I asked for his blessing to revive the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra. He was the founder of that band, and I asked his permission to revive it after more than 20 years. He said, “By all means, go for it.”

He’s one of the people who told me I needed to be a voice of my generation in academia. For a while I was conflicted [between an academic career and] going on the road and being a 100-percent, full-time musician. But folks like Nathan and Dr. David Baker and Terell Stafford, they would say, “Sean, you have this ability to communicate in academic settings, and you should really be using it. Because a couple of decades from now, your colleagues are going to be looking to do the same thing, and they’re going to need advice.” That’s now coming to fruition. I’m the guy in my generation who’s been in academia for 15 years, and a lot of my peers are calling me up and saying, “How do you do this?”

I remember bringing Wynton Marsalis to Duquesne, and you can’t do that unless you have one of two things, or both: a pile of money, or relationships with people, and those relationships are based on the music and your contribution to the music. I didn’t have a pile of money. My friends would just come, and they still do. They say, “Hey, man, let me come and talk to your students.” And loosely, that concept of bringing the cats into the classroom and creating that “hang” setting, that sort of apprenticeship is what Nathan was able to do. Now, [as the chair of jazz studies at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore], I’ve tried not just to get my peers to do master classes, I’ve asked them to be on the faculty. I’ve been afforded the opportunity to take it a step further. The cats who are on faculty with me are out there playing, they’re doing the festivals, they’re on the Grammy-nominated records. That’s extremely valuable for students to see.

As a player Nathan had a unique style—very biting and edgy. As a composer he was totally amazing. He understood how to leverage his composing within the academic setting. Perhaps that’s the greatest thing he taught me: He said that a gig in academia is about teaching in the classroom first, but it’s also about leveraging that institution so that you can afford to do long-form compositions, so that you’re able to sit and write commissions. That’s actually a lot of what I did in Pittsburgh, and still do in Pittsburgh to this day. And I look forward to doing it in Baltimore.

The coolest thing about Nathan was that when you would go to his office, he was so chill. He was the cat in the room. I hear stories about him in academia, man, and he would be on these panels with all these Ph.D.s, kinda stuffy folks. He would be the guy who was loose in the room—like, “Tell me what this means about the blues. Tell me what this means about swing.” He would bring it back to where it was supposed to be, the meaning of what it is. That’s what I appreciate most about Nathan. He was never in the clouds so high that he couldn’t put it where the goats can get it.

[as told to Evan Haga]

Read Nathan Davis’ obituary

Originally Published