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Charles Davis: In the Air

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Charles DavisSaxophonist Charles Davis has spent the past few decades making history with such luminaries as Billie Holiday, Kenny Dorham, Abdullah Ibrahim, Clifford Jordan, Dinah Washington and Freddie Hubbard. Although Davis might be best known as one of the baritone players in the Sun Ra Arkestra, his many recordings and excellent performances outside of the Arkestral context have helped to establish him as a truly great musician. At 75, an age where other players might be slowing down a bit, Davis still performs and records worldwide, remaining highly respected and admired within the jazz community.

All About Jazz: When did you decide you wanted to become a musician?

Charles Davis: I don't know, I never really decided. I just got a saxophone as a teen, that was about it. I didn't have any great epiphany.

AAJ: So music chose you.

CD: I would guess so, 'cause I was always fascinated, even into the aspect of hearing guys rehearse. Nat "King" Cole, Gene Ammons, different people rehearsing in the neighborhood.

AAJ: It seems like it was in the air.

CD: Well, it was always in the air around Chicago. You couldn't turn the corner without hearing some music, I mean good music. So it was always in the air. I went to a high school [DuSable High] that was musically inclined. The band director, Walter Dyett, was a great band director and philosopher about life and how to get through life. So things just happened.

AAJ: Did you start out on baritone or did you start on tenor?

CD: I started on alto. That was my first instrument. That was the influence of Charlie Parker. Everybody that heard Charlie Parker wanted an alto. But I had been influenced in earlier years by Lester Young and a host of other saxophonists: Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas and all the locals in Chicago.

AAJ: What saxophonists do you really admire today?

CD: Swing Lee O'Neill, George Coleman; on baritone, Gary Smulyan. There's a lot of them that's good that I haven't heard. And I'll always have Lester Young.

AAJ: You're known for playing with the Sun Ra Arkestra, which you've done now for about...50 years?

CD: Not 50. Maybe 35, something like that, but not 50. [Davis' debut recording with Sun Ra was 1956' Super-Sonic Jazz; since then he's worked with the Arkestra intermittently.]

AAJ: You played with very notable people before you played with Sun Ra and while you were playing with him as well, including Billie Holiday.

CD: That was my first professional job to speak of, with Billie Holiday. The first one that I had that I went on the road was Clarence (Frogman) Henry, in between Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. He was a protégé of Fats Domino. Anyway, I went on the road with him. I think that was in '56. We come to New York, went around, Frogman went back and the next thing I knew I was back in New York with Dinah Washington. Then after that, Kenny Dorham.

AAJ: And you went back to Sun Ra?

CD: I'd been in and out of the band, you know. I'd be in and out. I worked with him periodically.

AAJ: When you did join the [Arkestra] you joined as a baritone sax man? At that time Pat Patrick was also with the band.

CD: Yeah. Sometimes we had two baritones. We recorded together. We wrote a song called "Two Tones," recorded on Sound of Joy (Delmark, 1957).

Charles DavisAAJ: So there was no tension or competition between you and Pat?

CD: Not to my knowledge. A lot of times Pat would play alto and I'd play the baritone. There was never no competition. It's not a basketball game [or] football game. It's music, something that's God-given. You try to perform to the best of your ability.

AAJ: What was Sun Ra like?

CD: That's a hard and an easy question. Sun Ra was a very amenable person. He was a nice guy, he got along with everybody. But also he had his own philosophies and outlooks of life. So it's kind of hard to say what he was like because he was always dealing with something that would surprise you. He was just another individual to me—with a heck of a music talent... So he was always a busy guy. It was always music.

AAJ: You're noted for playing the baritone but lately, especially on the records you've led, you've been playing more tenor.

CD: Well, I've been playing tenor for years.

AAJ: So you don't have a primary instrument?

CD: I play music. I play the soprano also. I've been playing the soprano since the '60s. I have a record I made with [pianist] Cedar Walton back in the '70s, Breakthrough, where I'm playing the baritone and the soprano. I didn't just start doing this.

AAJ: It seems that there's more of an emphasis lately on tenor.

CD: No, people just started talking about it like that. I've made quite a few records playing the tenor. On Blue Gardenia (Reade Street, 2003), I'm playing baritone and tenor. On one record, Land of Dreams (Smalls, 2007), I'm playing tenor and soprano. So I think that the Writers' Association should catch up.

AAJ: Well, maybe this is the time to dispel another myth. The belief is that a lot of people who played with Sun Ra tend to have their own solo careers circumscribed in a way. And you apparently are the exception to that.

CD: A lot of the guys, the reason it was that way was because Sun Ra took care of them. He paid me; he didn't take care of me. They lived in the house; some of them still live in the house. I never lived in the house.

AAJ: Was this in Philly?

CD: Well, it started here in New York. It was down on Sixth Street [or] Fourth Street, next to the Hell's Angels. The Hell's Angels were next door and he got along with them famously. It started there and then [Arkestra band member] Marshall Allen's father gave him a house in Philly. It's called Ra House and that's where they've been ever since.

AAJ: You've played on countless records but you've only played on a handful as a leader. Is that by choice or opportunity?

CD: It's not my choice. That's the way the cards are dealt right now.

AAJ: You mean that's the way the industry is?

CD: As far as I know that's the way the industry is. I have a CD just released: Our Man in Copenhagen: The Music of Bent Jaedig (Fresh Sound, 2008). He's a national hero of Denmark.

Charles Davis



AAJ: How did you undertake that project?

CD: Well, I was asked. That's the easiest way to get me to do something. Kresten Osgood, the Danish drummer, asked me to make a CD with him. I made that, then all of a sudden I did the tour with him in Denmark. I'm going to do something in September over in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy playing the music of Kenny Dorham. And we're gonna record that.

AAJ: Well that's great. But it's troubling that someone with your track record...

CD: Look, I've been trying to knock on doors and do this and do that, so after awhile you leave 'em alone. If they don't want to deal with you, leave 'em alone. In the earlier days I would try to get record dates and people would tell me, "Well, Gerry Mulligan is not selling this much." I look up and Gerry Mulligan's got another record date. Maybe one day I'll get lucky enough to find an agent to expedite matters.

Recommended Listening:

Charles Davis, Land Of Dreams (Smalls, 2006)

Abdullah Ibrahim, Water From An Ancient Well (Black Hawk/Enja, 1985)

Cedar Walton/Hank Mobley, Breakthrough! (Cobblestone-Muse, 1972)

Jimmy Garrison/Elvin Jones Sextet, Illumination! (feat. McCoy Tyner) (Impulse, 1963)

Steve Lacy, The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy (Candid, 1960)

Sun Ra, Visits Planet Earth/Interstellar Low Ways (featuring John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, Charles Davis) (Saturn/Evidence, 1956-60)

Photo Credits

Courtesy of Smalls Records

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