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Interviews

Nathan Davis: Back From Here

By Published: June 11, 2005

Im going to tell you something that few people know. In 1965 I toured with Art (Blakey). According to Art, I was the first tenor player after Wayne. (laughs) He told me the story, he said, 'Miles stole my tenor player.'

AAJ: Because of your role with the Paris Reunion Band many people still think of you as an expatriate, but you have been active, here in America, as a jazz musician and educator for nearly 35 years.

ND: Yeah, this is my 35th year here at University of Pittsburgh. When I think about it, sometimes I can hardly believe it.

AAJ: That would make you one of the first university level jazz academics to come from the jazz scene.

ND: A lot of people don't think about that, but really David Baker, Donald Byrd and myself were really the first black cats. David was the first, he was at Indiana. And Donald was at Howard. Well, David Baker recommended that Pitt contact me in Paris to see if I would be interested in coming back. Pitt was interested in starting a new jazz program - that was in 1969. Donald had already been in Paris and we had worked together a lot. When he returned to the states he wrote me letters saying, "Now is the time that you should come back. You're one of the few cats who plays and who has a degree and they're looking for cats like us." So between him and Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke, I said "I'm going try this" and I came back. I remember very well that there really wasn't anyone else that was around - there weren't any black cats especially and not even many white guys. I mean we were like the first. I know Buddy Baker was at Indiana teaching one or two classes, but no one had a full program - a curriculum program, we would be the first.

AAJ: Where did you do your undergraduate studies?

ND: My undergraduate degree was from the University of Kansas in Laurence, Kansas. My degree was in music education. During the time I was in Paris, I attended the Sorbonne. Now it's called the University of Paris, but at that time it was known as the Sorbonne. I studied ethnomusicology. At night I was playing in the clubs; playing in the Blue Note with Klook and Bud Powell, etc., but in the day time, I attended classes. It's kind of funny because there was an African student named Joe Maka, who used to work with Manu Dubango. Manu played alto saxophone and Joe was learning to play alto. Joe used to hang around the club where I was playing. I was kind of popular in Paris and played at the Chat qui Péché at that time. Joe was a student from Africa. I think from Guinea. He asked me if I could give him some lessons. "I'd like to learn how to play.' I said yeah and he would come by the house at around noon. Klook used to tell us tell us that we should help young artists, you know, like writers, like Ted Jones. Ted and those cats were always coming around selling their portraits, writings, short stories. And their poetry.

AAJ: Ted just passed, away last year.

ND: Ted did? Oh, wow. If you remember he was before Leroi Jones and those guys. Klook would ask us to buy paintings from painters. Buy books from the writers like Charles Davis, like Sandy, etc. Any of the cats that were around there writing. Because they were not as famous as writers like James Baldwin. And these cats were trying to make it. So Klook would say, "We got a gig. We have a gig playing and they have to hustle out on the street to sell their paintings, try to help them." So, anyway, I told this cat to come by the house when I wake up about two or three in the afternoon and I would give him the lessons. He did that and after about six months I finally asked him, "What are you studying anyway?' He told me ethnomusicology and that's how I got interested ... I just went out there to the Sorbonne and enrolled in some classes.

AAJ: You followed your student.

ND: Yeah, I followed my student and I went to the Sorbonne to study ethnomusicology. Joe said they were talking about music from East India and northern Brazil - Bahia. And I said, "That's great.' That's some of the same stuff 'Trane had recorded, Bahia and stuff like that. I said "Yeah, man," and I started to attend lectures by Madame Claudia Dubois. She really loved jazz and asked me to talk to the students about jazz. I felt comfortable and I enrolled in her classes.

So later when Pitt contacted me in Paris, David Baker, at Indiana University in Bloomington, actually told them that I was in Paris and that I had a degree. After several transatlantic phone calls I decided to come to the states and accept a job teaching at Pitt. When I came back here I intended to stay throughout the three-year contract and I've been here ever since. When I first got here, I saw what was happening on the inside concerning the administration's view about the role of jazz in academia, so I said "Okay, I'd better get an advanced degree." So I looked around for some programs and I finally settled in the program of ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University of Connecicut. (I never thought about it, but again I was following one of my students, Bill Cole, who had recently received a masters at the University of Pittsburgh. Bill called me and said, "They got a program up here in African American Music, and you can get in this program if you want to try get your degree. It's a part of the world music program." Anyway, one thing led to another and, as you said, I followed my student. I never thought of it like that. But that's how I got in that program. Sam Rivers and a bunch of cats were up there teaching part-time. Eventually I received my Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology.

AAJ: And that was when?

ND: That was in 1974.

AAJ: Meanwhile you were teaching at Pitt the whole time.

ND: Yeah, I was lucky. I was the last cat who could use the GI bill. And I paid for everything, flights, enrollment, etc, through the GI bill. They wanted to give me a teaching assistantship, but I said, "No, I can't do that, I need to keep my job at Pitt, because I'm going back anyway, but if we can work this out so I can fly up, I'll do it." And that's what happened. It took me four years of flying back and forth.

AAJ: You also made a record around that time that I remember - The Sixth Sense In The Eleventh House.

ND: That was a good record with Alan Dawson (drums), Richard Davis (bass) and Roland Hanna (piano).

AAJ: Was that your own record label?

ND: No, no. That was a record company here in Pittsburgh.

AAJ: Segue, right?

ND: Yeah, Segue Records. A guy named George Bacasa started it. Bacasa was hired by the president of the original company whose main business was fill editing and stuff like that for the NFL. They contacted him, or he contacted them, and he talked them into doing a record label as a tax write-off. So George was the president of the record label and I was the vice president. We did a number of records. We did my record Makatuka, we did one with Silhouettes - a lot of people pay a lot of money for these records at auctions - Abraham Laboriel's wife recently sent me a printout of an online auction where one of my records sold for $350. We also did another record with me with the Sixth Sense In the Eleventh House and then we did one with Toots Thielman - I don't even have a copy of that one.

Then all of a sudden some rock cat got the CEO's ear, the cat that owned the place, and (laughs hard) he came in and said that we were wasting a lot of money and time with jazz. I will never forget. He said, "Look here, this is fun, boys, but this guy convinced me that what we got to do is make some music that's going to sell to a lot of people.'" So there wasn't much we could do, but the irony of the whole damn thing is that this rock cat is the one that made them almost go bankrupt - trying to make a quick buck. Anyway, things have a way of working out.

AAJ: Years ago, I had a record of yours, recorded in Europe, with Larry Young playing piano.

ND: Yeah, Happy Girl.

AAJ: That's the only record I know of with Larry playing piano.

ND: I don't know (laughs) The reason I'm laughing is I brought Woody Shaw to Paris. I had been working with Eric Dolphy and Donald Byrd, right? And so Eric Dolphy, when Eric died all of a sudden, his fiancé, Joyce, came to me and we went to Madame Ricard, who owned the Chateau Paris, and said "Why don't we honor Eric's last wish and bring one of his dream trumpet players, Woody Shaw, to Paris?" So that's how Woody got to Paris.

This was actually my group and Woody was the trumpet player. We were working seven nights a week and, after about two or three weeks, Woody came to me and said "I wanna go home, I wanna go home.'" He was right out of high school when I sent for him. I said, "Hey, wait a minute, man. You've only been here month or so, give it time.'" So he said, "Then send for my boys back in New York." So Woody and I and Maddam Ricard put some money together and sent for Larry Young in Oregon and (drummer) Billy Brooks. Woody said, "Larry plays organ.'" So I said, "Wait a minute. What kind of organ player are you talking about?' You know, because I'm thinking I'd rather not work with an organ player - I'd rather have a pianist." And Woody said - I'll never forget - "Nat, this cat plays organ like you've never heard the organ played before, plus he's a helluva piano player." And so I said okay, so we sent for Larry and Billy.

About that time Kenny Clarke recommended to Joachim Berendt, a producer form Germany, that he thought that my band in Paris was one of the best things that was happening at that time. So Klook said, "Well, Nathan's got this band at the Chat qui Péché, you got to check them out." And that's how we got the record date with SABAA to do the happy girl album and on that day Larry played piano, not organ.

AAJ: He played piano on the gig, too?

ND: When we worked in clubs he would play piano, but sometimes he would request that the club owner find an organ for him - his love was organ. Sometimes we would go to a place and say "See if they can get a B3?" And we'd do it. But when he started playing piano he sounded a lot like of McCoy.

AAJ: Yeah, that's what I heard on that record.

ND: On piano, man. Yeah, all the times that we worked around Paris, specially at the Chat qui Péché, he played piano. On one occasion I remember him playing both piano and organ for a recording we made for a Parisian company, Pathe Marconi. Recently I was talking to Woody's son and Larry's son, because they had both been in touch with me about their fathers, you know, to get pictures, find information about their careers and I told them about this recording date. Pathe Marconi came in a recorded us live at the Chat qui Péché every night for about 10 days and got some helluva stuff I remember. But it never came out - they just kept it in the vault. And on these recordings we requested an organ and piano, so Larry's played both.

This guy who produced it, Michelle, I saw him a few years back when I was appearing with the Paris Reunion Band at the Antibes Jazz Festival. I asked him about the recording and he said, "Well, I'm not there any more, but it's there in the archives of Pathe Marconi." I was fortunate enough to hear a few of the tracks before I left Paris, and it was some of the best stuff I had ever heard.

AAJ: You were a Jazz Messenger, too. You worked with Art Blakey around that time, didn't you?

ND: I'm going to tell you something that few people know. In 1965 I toured with him, Art. According to Art, I was the first tenor player after Wayne. (laughs) He (Art) told me the story, he said, "Miles stole my tenor player." So when Joachim Berendt put together that tour first he turned it down because he didn't have a tenor player. I was working with Klook at the Blue Note in Paris. (The first time, when first I met him, we were at the Club St. Germaine des Pres in Paris and they had the battle of the bands - Art Blakey from Pittsburgh and Kenny Clarke from Pittsburgh, you know two Pittsburghers. So Bu - that's what they called Art - remembered that night and when Joachim suggested that he have a tenor player - me - Art liked the idea and that's how I got the job with Art. So when he got ready to book for the tour (Newport Jazz Festival in Europe) - everybody was on it. They remembered me and I joined Art in the new Jazz Messengers on that tour.

The tour went all over Europe - almost every capitol there. Freddie can tell you because he was there. The band was named as the New Messengers because of the direction the band was takings. Freddie Hubbard was on trumpet, I was on tenor, Jaki Byard was on piano. He took it in another direction - with him in there we had a little freedom thing going, Jaki could also play trombone, vibraphone, saxophone, clarinet and kill. Reggie Workman was the bassist and Buhaina on drums.

I got to tell you this (laughs), because this is bringing back good memories. We were playing in Stockholm at Ice Arena, you know, the big arenas. Now we'd been on tour and Jaki would be going out, but this night he was really going out this night, you know what I mean, stretching and Bu called me over, "Davis!" And I went over there and leaned down and Bu said, "What the hell is Jaki Byard doing?" (laughs) "Well he's trying to stretch out - loosen it up a little bit, you know," I told him. (laughs) So Bu said, "Well tell him he can't do that shit, man - he's going too far out." So I kind of - trying to be cool - you know, young and stupid, got in the middle. I went over to Jaki and I said, "Hey Jaki, you got to cool it a little bit, Bu's getting upset." And Jaki said out loud, everybody could hear him, "Oh man, I thought you were one of the cats, man. Come on, man." I said to myself, "Whoops! Let me get out of here." You know another thing with Art, I wanted to play flute sometimes, but he wouldn't let me play flute. He'd say, "Too light."

I think what was happening in my case because I was living in Europe, he didn't have to bring me. Joachim Berendt was doing the whole tour. I don't know all the particulars, but George Wein always did the Newport tours, but that one year Berendt did it. So he was in charge. So I was his guy because he had just produced my new album, so it was fate, I guess. Berendt said when he called my name, he (Bu) said "Oh yeah. Get him. It was cool."

I remember I showed up a day ahead of time in Munich, where we were supposed to start. I said, "Well, I'm going to learn this music." So I started listening to all the records and shit. I didn't know what they're going to play. So, maybe I was two days up there or something like that, because Freddie came the day before we started and I said ... everybody's looking for Bu. This is a new group getting together, Jaki Byard, etc., you gotta figure that shit out ... new tenor player, new pianist, etc ... So Freddie, I remember that afternoon in the hotel, he said, "We better rehearse something. Bu might not show up 'til right at the time we hit." (laughs) So sure enough, God bless his soul, Freddie rehearsed and I got some of the shit down, and we hit that night, you know, we hit. We had to hit and I was hanging and, after the gig, Benny Golson came up and he said, "Nathan Davis. Sound good. And I got it all right here (showing a portable cassette recorder)." And I said, "Oh shit," because I didn't know the music that well, you know what I mean, that good, because it was my first hit. I never forgot it. I looked at Benny like, boy, come on, man ... my hero Benny Golson, standing out there saying, "I got it all right here." Showing me the tape recorder. (laughs) "I got it all right here."

This is true, man. I always felt good about working with Klook. Klook was like my father. We were that tight because I worked with him all those years. Bu came to me at the end of the tour and asked me to stay with the band. Freddie said, "I got to talk to you, I'm just telling you this" - anyway what happened was Freddie said, "Bu loves you. He said you remind him a lot of Wayne and he likes you and he wants you to stay. But I would think this over, if I were you." This is what Freddie is telling me. And I always felt close to Freddie for being honest with me like that. "He's going to cry and he's going to do all kinds of shit, but you better think about." Freddie was just telling me to look out for myself.

Anyway, sure enough, this is what happened in Amsterdam. He called me in, "Yeah Davis, I want you to stick with the band. You'll be the musical director and whatever we play, you will write. You will be just the same as Wayne was." He's talking about how much he's going to pay me, work or not, you know retainer, that kind of shit. During that time my daughter was just born. She was like six months old or something like that and so I told him "You're the man," but actually I wasn't ever planning to come back to America anyway, to be honest, so that had something to do with it. But I said, "Man, I really appreciated this, but I can't go back. I'm staying in Paris to be with my family." And that was my intent.

Everytime I would see his new group with Terrence Blanchard, he would tell the story of me in Paris and not accepting a permanent position with the group. I first met Terrence and Donald together with Bu. Bu said, "Hey this is Nathan Davis, he used to be my tenor player. I want you all to meet him. And he's the only man in America who ever turned me down." So I mean he's lying, but I told him I wouldn't leave Paris because I wanted to raise my daughter. He would run that in my face every time I would see him.

AAJ: What prompted you to stay in Europe at the time?

ND: Well, first of all I ended up being drafted into the military, right after I got my degree in Kansas. Joe Henderson and I met Joe in the military. They had this all army contest, I forget what you call it, it was set up so that army bands could go all over entertaining troops. They had this big contest and I had written some arrangements (hums) "It's Alright With Me," you know. I had two trombones and me playing tenor and we won the European arena, or whatever you call it, and they sent us back to the states. And Joe won with his group, in the U.S. arena. In America and we all played together down in Maryland someplace. And they selected people from each group for the Royal tour. This is weird, they didn't select a tenor player, they selected Joe as a bassist. Joe Henderson, that's true. And Joe toured and I went on back to Berlin 279th Army band, whatever the band was, in Berlin, and I looked up one day and Joe was in the barracks coming to see me. And we used to talk a lot, "What are you going to do when you get out." And both of us said that we wanted to go to Paris, play with Kenny Clarke and study with Nadia Boulanger. That was our dream. And Joe went back to New York and hooked up with KD, of course, and I stayed in Europe and I worked with Kenny Clarke. But I didn't study with Nadia Boulanger (laughs), she wouldn't accept me, you know. But I did play with Kenny Clarke. So my mind was set to stay in Europe when I got out of the army. I'd heard from one of the students of Nadia Boulanger, that she didn't accept me and the other students because we were not dressed properly with a tie and suit. She was very conservative.

AAJ: Did you feel it was a better way of life?

ND: The truth was when I decided to stay in Europe, I did so because I wanted to work as a musician and not a school teacher. First I worked with Benny Bailey (trumpet) and Joe Harris (drums) in Berlin, and then Joachim Berendt produced Expatriate Americans in Europe, and Kenny Clarke heard me and invited me from Koblenz in Germany, where the concert was held to join him in Paris at the club St. Germaine des Pres. So night after night I'm playing with Kenny Clarke, Dexter Gordon would come in, Johnny Griffin would come in, Sonny Criss and then Don Byas would come in. And then Erroll Garner, and the MJQ, would all come in and play with us. After a while I said, "Shit, what am I going back to the states for, I'm working with more people over here than I ever could in the states." And that's why I stayed because if I came back to the states I would just be another cat ...

AAJ: Scuffling like everybody else.

ND: Yeah and I'd never even get to meet them cats, and I'm working with Kenny Clarke and everybody who came there came to see him. So I just stayed and it ended up being five years, seven years, you know like that. I started when I was in the military, like '61 and stayed until I came back here in '69.

AAJ: Did you continue working as a player during this time?

ND: Yeah, that's the reason that I laugh. I remember sitting here, actually not this office, but another office here, reading in Downbeat magazine and it said, "Dexter Gordon returned back, Woody Shaw returned back, to great ovations. Whatever happened to Nathan Davis?" And boy, a big tear came to my eye, because I had been playing all the time. Still playing, but people had that kind of attitude - a different kind of attitude towards a musician who was teaching, too. But now that's all changed, everybody is trying to find positions.

AAJ: Also, you were in Pittsburgh.

ND: And I was in Pittsburgh, yeah, but say for instance - you know about the Paris Reunion Band. We made four or five videos and seven lps and then after that I was with the band Roots (with Chico Freeman, Arthur Blythe and Sam Rivers) and later Benny Golson. I was always touring even though I was in Pittsburgh. In fact, when I took this job I told them that I would only take it if I could continue to tour and do my thing. But I would just honor the fact that I had a schedule here and I wouldn't be gone all the time. But I never intended to give up (playing) and I never did.

I've got to tell you this story. I mean I laugh about it. Mike Hennessy is a good friend of mine. He used to be editor of Billboard; he was the European editor of Billboard for years. I was sitting in his office in London - I must have been working at Ronnie Scott's - and he said call these cats over in Germany because, man, they love your work, and maybe you can get a date and I can produce it. So I got on the phone and I called and I said, "Hey, it's Nathan Davis here," and the cat said, "Yeah, yeah, how are you doing, and everything?" and I said, "Well, fine, I'm in Europe playing at Ronnie Scott's." He said "Well, I don't know, Nathan. When you were living here you were playing all the time and the people, they really liked your playing, but now you started teaching. You chose another way of life." And I said, "What does that have to do with playing. Shit, I'm still a player." But that's the kind of attitude that they had then. Of course, that's changed now with a lot of guys teaching.

AAJ: Let's go to the band Roots. That was something you were in on from the beginning.

ND: Yeah, from the beginning. Actually, the idea of Roots, my involvement anyway, came from Mike Hennessey. Because we were always best of buddies - and still are. I just produced a big program for UNESCO in Paris in October, and I had Mike come in and be part of that, too. After Woody died that kind of killed the Paris Reunion Band, for me anyway. I mean we did some things after that, but it kind of petered out. Well, anyway, concerning Roots, Mike said, "Well I got an idea, why don't we do a group with just saxophones and pay tribute to all of the great saxophone players in jazz." And I said, "Hey! Whatever you got, let's do it." So that's how I got involved. It was Mike's idea and he mentioned Chico Freeman, and he mentioned Sam Rivers and Arthur Blythe as the other saxophonists. And we put the rhythm section (with Don Pullen, Santi Debriano and Idris Muhammed) together and we did it and we had a lot fun with it. That band was together for about five or six years. (The Paris Reunion Band, I think, lasted about seven years.)

AAJ: Does that band ever tour any more?

ND: No, that kind of petered out, too. But it's funny - I was surprised - but I was talking to Arthur about it a week ago and we were both surprised that the band had been together five or six years almost. I didn't realize it was that long. And the Paris Reunion Band, that was seven years. We worked mostly in Europe.

AAJ: You did make a gig with the Paris Reunion Band in New York at the Blue Note years ago, if I remember correctly?

ND: Yeah, yeah. In fact it was in '85. Then the last time I played at the Blue Note was the Tribute to Dizzy. There was a month long Celebration for Dizzy. I was on one with Mario Rivera (tenor), Tim Warfield (tenor). Three tenors, Dizzy, and a rhythm section - Lewis Nash (drums), Danilo Perez (piano) and George Mraz on bass.

AAJ: Were those the only gigs you've done in New York since returning from Paris?

ND: I haven't worked that much here. I did a gig with Slide Hampton at Saratoga when I first came back. Slide was in Paris during the time I was there; that's how he got in the Paris Reunion Band, and he got me on that all-star Mingus All-Star Big Band and we did a thing up in Saratoga. Then Slide and I did a couple of quintet gigs at Battery Park and recorded in some studios. And then I played there once again with the Paris Reunion Band one night at Town Hall; that was funny because it was still the Paris Reunion Band and we did one hit in New York. At the time I was in Europe and I had to come all the way back and play it and then go all the way back (laughs). But regular work in New York, no.

AAJ: Do you have a regular working band in Pittsburgh?

ND: Yeah, I just recorded a new CD (The Other Side Of Morning - Dedicated to Eric Dolphy)with this band. Mike Taylor is on bass. Actually, Dwayne Dolphin, is also on bass. I used two bass players. James Johnson on piano and Craig Davis on piano, Greg Humphries is on drums. He's related to Roger Humphries. Roger's his uncle. He plays his ass off. And David Baker is on cello. He's on it as a guest. It's out now. I'm handling it myself with my company, Tomorrow International.

AAJ: How is it that you came to be included on the program for this James Moody tribute at the Blue Note?

ND: Moody and I, number one, are very good friends and we have been playing together, actually, all over the place. A number of times I've had him down here at the University of Pittsburgh. We've known each other since Paris. I think I met him in '64, '65, or something like that. So we've been friends. For the past five years I have put together a program down at Florida Memorial College for a friend of mine, All Smith, so in addition to here, at the University of Pittsburgh, he's been on Florida with me. And Grover Washington, Jr. In fact, we used to call ourselves the Three Tenors.

I think the last tribute they had for Moody in New York at Lincoln Center, I think it was April of 2000. I was on tour with the Paris Reunion Band and he had asked me to do it then but I couldn't do it because we were doing a tour. So this time he had Ina Ditke, his manager, call me. Ironically, I'm actually at the Kennedy Center for the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program during this time. It's like a residency program. So I'm there from the 23rd through April 1, and I arranged to get off and so I could fly up to New York and do that on the 25th. Ina thought it was a good idea because Grover and Moody and I, like I said, had been playing around, as the Three Tenors and they wanted to do a salute to Grover, so she called and that's how they got it together.

You know, I want to say something else about Moody, though, man. I did some analysis of transcriptions of Moody's solos. My wife's writing a book. They are going to have a book signing at the Blue Note during this time. This cat! I mean I know him, he's my friend, but, boy that's one bad-assed dude there. (laughs) Boy, this cat is super, super, super bad, man. And some of his shit is so fast man. On alto I definitely put him in the same class as Stitt and Bird. He is killing.

And still, Moody calls now, he's going to be 80, right? And he says, "Nathan, check this out. Try this." And he'll play on the phone. Sometimes I get the students to come. He'll call up here at school and I'll pick up the phone and we listen in on this shit. And he'll be playing shit, "Practice this. Now do this. Do this." And I'll say, "Okay, man." (laughs) and that's beautiful because this cat he could lay back and say "Well, I've done it."

AAJ: When he hits the bandstand, it's still holy ground.

ND: Yeah, he's still there, man and he's active as hell. I love him to death. That's my man.



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