Davis began playing in grammar school, “then I went to a famous high school in Chicago. DuSable, named after the person that discovered Chicago. John Baptiste Pointe DuSable. We had a tedious bandmaster. A lot of famous musicians came through there. He tutored people like Dinah Washington, Nat Cole, Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Von Freeman. It’s a long list.
“The better you got, the more gigs you would come by. I started in high school, playing a few little gigs. People give you $2 or $3. But that was big time then, because you had a gig. The money wasn’t the prerequisite then. You play for dances and social events that people have, parties or whatever,” he says.
Davis’ first big break, he says, was getting the call to join Sun Ra, the self-proclaimed being from another planet who combined swinging arrangements with far-out charts from his unique musical mind. “It was great. We sort of had a bebop mystical band. With Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Julian Priester Arthur Hall, myself, and at one time Richard Evans, a bassist. I still play with the band from time to time.”
So big name or not, Davis has played with the greats and blessed their work with his professional approach and sweet style. His tenure with Lady Day came about when she toured through the city, as so many jazz acts did. “That was through a band mate in Chicago called Al Smith. I periodically played with him from time to time. He got the gig and she came into a place called Budland, at the time. The guy opened it up as Birdland, but Birdland in New York made him change it. She was there for three or four months. It was great. Along with her, was Ben Webster. I was playing in a band that was backing her and Ben was doing feature solos She was great to work with. She had a heck of a command and stage presence when she came on. She was very professional.
“After Billie Holliday, I went on the road with Clarence Henry. He was a protégé of Fats Domino. He had the record out, ‘I Could Sing Like a Frog.’ It was like rock and roll or whatever you want to call it. I stayed with him a few months. Then I came back and I started working with Dinah Washington. Along with Eddie Chamblee, Julian Priester, Melvin Moore and myself, and later on Jack Wilson and Richard Evans. This was in 1958 or 1959. After the band broke up, I worked for her on a few more occasions.
“After Dinah, I made a trip to California. After six months I had to get out of there. I came back, went from Chicago to New York, then started working with Kenny Dorham. That lasted a few years. Been in New York ever since. I worked with John Coltrane, Illinois Jacquet, Clark Terry, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis. I was in the band when Thad quit. We did about three months in Europe. I worked with Erskine Hawkins.”
Davis has a September 19-20 gig at Smoke in NYC with the band to promote the CD. Other than that, there isn’t a lot revolving around Blue Gardenia, but Davis continues to work steadily in these tough times for musicians. “I’m still gigging around New York. I’ll be in Birdland with Barry Harris. I’m going to Japan for a few days and do a concert in Italy after that. I’m hanging in there.”
“It’s up and down,” says Davis with no hint of bitterness or undue concern. “That’s the reality of life. I’d like to have gigs in abundance, but I don’t have them. You still have to maintain. Keep going. There’s always going to be a complaint. If you have 1,000, you want 10,000, and if you have that, you want 50,000. It’s always something.”
The propensity for record labels to look for the new young lions, often overlooking some of jazz’s major contributors in the process,, who are still going and still goring, also doesn’t phase Davis. “That’s nothing new. That always happened. You still have to maintain what you’re doing. You can’t let that bother you. At one point, you have to get a name, and when you get a name, it’s not big enough. That happens to all of us. That’s just part of the realities of being a jazz and bebop musician.’ And for those who don’t like it, “You can go to the other side (pop) and work all the time.”
While his friend and influence saxophonist George Coleman talks of retiring (“He’s retiring every year. God Bless him if he can do it. There are only two musicians that I knew of that retired. Sid Catlett and Jonah Jones”), Davis says that it’s not in the cards for him. He’ll continue to tote his horn and tell his stories and please audiences wherever he can.
“Like Duke Ellington said: ‘Retire to what?’ I don’t have an eye for retiring right now,” he says, adding with a sparkle, “But I could come into a lot of money and live the good life, though.”