Pitt Jazz Seminar & Concert Set For November 3-7

Jimmy Owens
Dr. Nathan Davis

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Now in its 39th year (or maybe its 40th, see below), Pittsburgh Jazz Week will take place November 3-7, 2009, at various venues throughout the Pittsburgh area. The festival, which is also known as the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert, was founded by noted saxophonist and educator Dr. Nathan Davis of the University of Pittsburgh, where he has been head of the jazz program since 1969, Davis’ association with the University of Pittsburgh marks quite possibly the longest tenure of any jazz educator in this country. The event includes a wide range of concerts, seminars, lectures and workshops on and off Pitt’s campus. Among the performers slated to appear are: George Cables, Terri Lyne Carrington, Leon Lee Dorsey, Benny Golson (who will be honored for his 80th birthday and for his contributions to jazz), Donald Harrison, Jimmy Owens, Yotam Silberstein, Lew Soloff and of course, Davis himself, who spoke with JT about his long and accomplished history with the University.

Davis wasn’t planning on a long career in jazz education. Coming out of the Kansas City area, Davis had attended the University of Kansas, but for many years made his living and reputation as a sideman with several legendary musicians, including two of the greatest drummers in jazz history-Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey. Davis was living in Paris during the late ’60s, working with Clarke at the famous Blue Note nightclub. During a few summers there, he got involved with the Paris-American Academy of Music, which hosted a program dedicated to teaching jazz and jazz appreciation to college students and college teachers. “I was walking by and heard what they were doing. I went in and told them, ‘Let me teach a history course.’ I did that and we did a final concert as a closer. We did that program for 5 years.” Davis had gotten his feet wet in jazz education and, in 1969 he got a call about an opening for a teaching position at University of Pittsburgh. “David Baker had told them about me and they contacted me. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try it. At that time there weren’t many schools with jazz program. Baker was at Indiana, Donald Byrd was at Howard.”

Given how rare formal jazz education was at the time, perhaps it should not be surprising that Davis wasn’t sure if he should come back to the U.S. and take the job. “Some of the guys in the band told me not to do it. Art Taylor, Johnny Griffin. But Klook [Clarke] told me to go. He said, ‘It’s good for jazz. You tell the truth. And when you get your foot in the door and you don’t let it out!”

Because the program was in its nascent stages, Davis had to start from scratch. “There was nothing. I thought, ‘What am I going to teach?’ I didn’t know what classes there should be. Then I decided to teach it as a professional. What would a real working musician need to know? Well, he’s going to need the history of jazz. He’s going to need to know how to improvise. And he needs to know how to write music. So that was the curriculum I started with: history, improvisation and composition.” He started in September 1969. So this would be his 39th, wait, no, his 40th year. The two of us ran out of fingers trying to figure it out.

Coincidentally, his other mentor was residing in Pittsburgh at that time and was excited for his charge’s opportunity. “During that first semester, I get a call from Bu [Blakey’s nickname], who was playing at the Crawford Grill. He says, ‘Come on down, bring your horn.’ I do down and sit in with the band and he introduces me, ‘This is my tenor player, Nathan Davis. I taught him everything. Now he’s running the university over there!’ I corrected him about that, but he was just so proud.”

No surprise then, that Blakey was the first honored guest to perform in the concert series that eventually became the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert. “I went down there to the club and asked him to come to the school for a show. He comes to play and we get 1,000 people to come with no advertising or publicity. Just word of mouth. And he talked about jazz and his life. That was it. That was the first show.” In fact, Davis figures that for all intents and purposes, given that he started in 1969, this year is more like the 40th.

That love and dedication from his peers continued on through the years. “It was three years later, Dizzy Gillespie calls Klook to find out what I was doing. Klook tells him that I’m at Pitt and teaching jazz there. Dizzy calls me and I tell him I’m doing this annual concert and he says, ‘I got a gig, but I’ll fly in and do a lecture.’ That’s the way it was. Guys did all of this for free for me. They were so glad that one of their own had gotten into the system.”

This pioneer in the field of jazz education is proud about how the program and the field of jazz education have grown over the years. “A great change has come about because universities like ours have introduced so many kids to jazz.” Davis is also justifiably proud of the long-term success of the program in fiscal terms. “Do you know that in all these years, we only had 3 shows in the red. Every show makes money. For the last 10 years or so, I figure I raised about $2 million.”

Looking at the schedule of events, you’ll notice not just the big all-star concert, but also a series of events in the community – performances at nursing homes, Ronald McDonald Houses and other places not necessarily the obvious choices for shows. “Since the first years, we always did that. See I used to do shows for prisoners or senior citizens. I wanted to bring the music to people who I knew couldn’t afford it and have access to it. It’s just plain good community relations. And that’s good for the university, whose mission is about making a difference in the community. For some jazz musicians, it’s all about them and their gig and their music, but it’s got to be about more than how slick your licks are. I wanted completeness within the community. I’ll have a congressman as MC or the school’s chancellor involved.” This year, The Honorable William R. Robinson, the former Pennsylvania state representative, will serve as the evening’s master of ceremonies. And, at intermission, one of the guest artists will be presented with the University of Pittsburgh Jazz Seminar Committee Award and two other musicians (one living and one deceased) will be inducted into the University of Pittsburgh International Academy of Jazz Hall of Fame.

This year’s program will honor Davis’s good friend Benny Golson who is celebrating his 80th birthday this year. Golson will receive an award and will perform as well. Davis will never forget that when he went to LA in the early ’70s, Golson opened his doors for Davis. Laughing about his friend’s sartorial presence, Davis said, “I call him Sir Mister Benny. One time at Ronnie Scott’s, he’s giving these long complicated introductions of the band, and the crowd is going nuts. I told him, ‘Man, you got the British clapping for your English.'”

The 72-year-old Davis remains as physically active as ever (“I still practice 3-4 hours every day”), but he recognizes that eventually someone will have to take over for him with the program and the event. “The University is looking to hire two people to replace me. I mean, that makes me feel good, but I feel better to know that they are really committed to keeping the program working at a top level.” One important legacy that Davis is intent on leaving is a Ph.D program for jazz. He developed this program knowing that if jazz people are really going to make inroads at universities across the country, they will need to be accredited at that level. “I remember for the first 10-15 years at the school, the faculty would get together for meetings and I would be excluded because I didn’t have that degree. Eventually, he commuted to the prestigious Wesleyan University to get his doctorate (“Thank God for the GI Bill!”) in 1974. Davis says that the program welcomes its first three students next year.

Looking back, Davis has no regrets about leaving the world of the journeyman jazz musician for that of the academician. “No, not at all. When I was young, I saw the great saxophonist John Jackson in Kansas City, and he was living at his mother’s house in the basement, stinking drunk. I saw at an early age how tough the jazz life could be on somebody.”

Although the University of Pittsburgh has certainly benefited a great deal from Davis’s involvement for 39 (or 40) years, Davis knows that he’s gained much from the association. “It’s been a good ride for me, yes it has. It’s been a lot of work. But it’s been a joy. A real joy.”