After 44 years of running Pitt's jazz studies program, Nathan Davis is moving on
July 31, 2013 4:00 PM
Nathan Davis, shown in 1977, has played with jazz greats in this country and in Europe.
Nathan Davis, 76, retired last month as head of Pitt's jazz studies program after 44 years with the university.
By Rick Nowlin Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Nathan Davis came to the University of Pittsburgh in 1969 to direct the jazz studies program, he planned to give it a three-year trial.
He ended up staying 44 years.
A Pittsburgh institution in his own right -- when someone in the local jazz community mentions the name Nathan, everyone understands the reference -- Mr. Davis stepped down from his post last month.
Although his accomplishments are legion, his most enduring legacy is the annual University of Pittsburgh Jazz Seminar & Concert, now in its 43rd year. The concert, on the first Saturday in November, often is referred to as a "once-in-a-lifetime jam session."
"I didn't take a job to get a paycheck," Mr. Davis said. "I wanted jazz to be respected at the same level [as classical music]. The jazz program is considered one of the major bullet points at the university."
Mr. Davis, a 76-year-old native of Kansas City, Kan., and a resident of Bradford Woods, got his love of music from both parents, who weren't together when he was growing up.
"My father had a collection of 'Jazz at the Philharmonic' -- every weekend I used to visit him," Mr. Davis says. "My mother was a gospel singer. So she would sing and I would play the saxophone. We played at churches and afternoon teas."
Mr. Davis primarily plays the tenor saxophone and soprano saxophone.
Encouraged to pursue music by a Methodist pastor who also was a jazz fan, he matriculated at the University of Kansas, where one of his buddies was a 7-foot-1 DJ named Wilt Chamberlain. After graduating in 1959 with a degree in music education, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, ending up at the Navy School of Music and with the 298th Army Band in Berlin, where he started his professional music career. And like many American jazz musicians, he stayed in Europe because work was plentiful.
"I took an overseas discharge 'cause I was working with Benny Bailey and [Pittsburgh native and jazz drummer] Joe Harris," Mr. Davis says. "They were working with SSB Orchestra in Berlin."
Eventually Pittsburgh-born drummer Kenny Clarke persuaded Mr. Davis to move to Paris.
"We were working seven nights a week for seven years straight," he says.
He fell in with other expatriate American musicians -- Kenny Drew, Art Farmer, Bud Powell and Donald Byrd. He took graduate courses in ethnomusicology at the Sorbonne under Claudie Marcel-Dubois. Although he had done some teaching at some smaller conservatories in Germany and France, he started his teaching career -- jazz history and improvisation -- at the Schola Cantorum de Paris.
The road to Pitt
Mr. Davis wasn't looking to return to the States, but when Pitt started looking for someone to head the program, others turned down the job. Having heard about Mr. Davis' reputation in Paris, David Baker, now known as a longtime professor at Indiana University, recommended him.
"I didn't apply, but Donald Byrd had already left [Europe] -- he was encouraging me to come back," Mr. Davis says. He started an ethnomusicology program upon arriving at Pitt.
"That was the only way that we could get jazz to be [considered a] legitimate [discipline]."
He eventually earned a doctorate in the same field at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
"They were so proud that a real jazz guy who had a degree was doing this," Mr. Davis says.
Seeds of the seminar
The jazz seminar, the first of its kind and still fairly unique around the world, started on a lark.
Just weeks after Mr. Davis took the Pitt gig in 1969, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, with whom he had once played, were appearing at the Crawford Grill. Mr. Blakey told Mr. Davis to "bring your tenor," and Mr. Davis got the idea that the band might want to come by the campus to talk about jazz.
Mr. Blakey agreed to do so, and the resulting concert drew an overflow crowd to the Stephen Foster Memorial -- "We didn't pay them one dime." Afterward, Mr. Davis and then-provost Donald Henderson, a jazz fan in his own right, sat down to do more formal planning.
Since then, a nearly innumerable roster of top jazz artists has come to Pitt to impart knowledge to students -- and anyone else -- interested in the study of jazz. The seminar these days comprises presentations about the business and history of jazz as well as instrumental demonstrations by the musicians Mr. Davis personally recruited.
Getting artists to come in for the seminar has changed. Before, he just had to pick up the phone.
"Now, it's different," he says. "Everyone you call has a manager, an assistant."
One year Dizzy Gillespie was recruited.
"Dizzy had already booked a job that night," Mr. Davis said. But Gillespie said he'd give a talk at the seminar and paid his own way.
Mr. Davis also ran a pretty tight ship when it came to musicians' and students' behavior when on campus.
"We had a couple of incidents where students went to take pictures and they cursed them out," Mr. Davis recalled. "I told [the musicians], 'You're here for these students -- we're all stars here, including me.' I told students, 'Don't ask silly questions.' "
Sometime in the mid-1980s -- he can't recall the year -- Mr. Davis invited drummer Elvin Jones, with whom he worked in Paris, to do the seminar. He knew Jones tended to drink heavily and was known to pitch his trap set into the audience from time to time.
"I talked to Elvin, 'Now, we know each other and I'm trying to start something, and if you start acting crazy it'll set me back.' He came and he didn't take one drink [until after the concert]." Bill Ness, who at the time was the head of Pitt's evening school and on the jazz seminar committee, said, "That showed a lot of respect for [Mr. Davis]" -- especially since Jones later did his drum-throwing act in Rio de Janeiro.
Education level very high
As for jazz education since he came to Pitt, "The level has gone very, very high -- any one of [our top students] can tour with anyone who's out there now. In America, you now can hardly find a school that doesn't have a jazz offering, and most of them have jazz programs or at least someone teaching jazz history.
"[The study of] jazz has become more international," Mr. Davis said. One of his former students, Claus Reichstaller, has modeled Mr. Davis' program in Munich, and "they have programs in Belgium and a lot of camps that are beginning to take hold."
Attendance at last year's seminar concert was down a bit due to Hurricane Sandy and bomb threats at Pitt.
"In spite of all that, we almost sold out. The Pittsburgh audience is just fantastic."
Mr. Davis says that two people will be hired to replace him, with the focus on maintaining the archives collection and keeping the jazz seminar -- "It's written down who does what. Everyone has assured me that [the seminar] will keep going," Mr. Davis says. "I appreciate the support from the higher administration."
Another of Mr. Davis' legacies at Pitt is a doctoral program in jazz studies, which includes ethnomusicology, musicology, composition and performance.
"In addition to writing a dissertation, [candidates] had to compose original music for big band, string orchestra, nonet and all styles of jazz," Mr. Davis said. "It gives legitimacy to jazz studies."
Mr. Davis also was on the ground floor for the first incarnation of the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, known in the 1980s as the Pittsburgh Concert Jazz Orchestra. It was patterned after New York's Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, but the group eventually disbanded because of lack of funding.
Trumpeter Sean Jones, a professor at Duquesne University, revived it in 2009, and it has a permanent home at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.
Mr. Davis also is responsible for the William Robinson Recording Studio in Bellefield Hall, named for the former state representative, former Pittsburgh councilman and current Allegheny County councilman, who has long been a patron of the Jazz Seminar.
And while Mr. Davis' influence is felt far from Pitt, it's also extended just up the road.
"Throughout my career, there are a few musicians/educators that I have admired as well as emulated," says Mr. Jones, also an internationally renowned artist in his own right whom Mr. Davis once brought to the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago as part of a young-artists program.
"Professor Davis has contributed to the broad world of jazz while managing to contribute to the city in which he has chosen to reside," Mr. Jones says. "This is a wonderful example of how I wish to build my own career."
Mr. Davis isn't the only academic in the family -- his wife, Ursula, whom he met in Berlin, is a tenured professor of communications at Penn State's Behrend campus, and their daughter, Joyce Natalie Poulin, who holds a master's degree from Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, recently received a doctorate in sociology at Harvard.
He's not the only musician, either; son Pierre-Marc, whose day gig is as a corporate lawyer, does his own projects. He's a drummer and recording engineer and designed and installed the equipment for the William Robinson Recording Studio. Nathan and Ursula Davis also have three grandchildren.
Mr. Davis welcomes his retirement.
"Mostly what I'm going to do is practice and write, and a gig here and there -- I've had it with [teaching]," he said. "It's been a beautiful experience, but I want the freedom to do what I want and when I want to do it."