Nathan Davis: Back From Here
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.