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Meet Davis Wilson

Meet Davis Wilson

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Five years later I married again. She hated jazz. For seventeen years I was separated from my music. Finally, we divorced and I was free.
Jeopardy contestant, amateur pianist, dance teacher, actor, sailor, postal worker, our July Super Fan has lived all over the place and done it all. Now based in St. Paul, Minnesota, he met "zillions of artists" as keeper of the flame at the old Artists' Quarter jazz club. But he stumbled upon one of the most memorable concerts of his life at a funky auditorium in Seattle, where he saw the world's greatest-ever jazz singer, along with her favorite saxophonist.

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Tampa, Florida, in 1936. My father was a cop who died when I was nine years old. Somehow my mother raised my brother and me. We had an old Cable upright piano. I begged for lessons and, thanks to Ms. Russ and Schirmer [sheet music publisher], I learned to read music and gained a basic grasp of music theory. I am grateful. This was the foundation of my musical life.

I got through high school. Despite a good academic scholarship, I was tossed out of Florida State University. Afterwards, I bounced around a few jobs and then, in 1954, joined the Navy. After boot camp I was posted to Treasure Island, in San Francisco. I joined the boxing team so I was what they called "open gangway," which meant I was exempt from watch duty every third day, and not restricted to base.

Later, I sold books for a while and then became a dance teacher at Arthur Murray. After a year of living on the edge I drove the county bookmobile for the Tampa Public Library. I enrolled in the new University of South Florida as a theater major. The following summer I had a few small roles in a production of Hamlet. I met my first wife and left school to work for the U.S. Postal Service. A fellow worker sent my name to Jeopardy, so I made an appointment for an audition, flew to New York, and was selected. I went as a standby contestant and asked "What time is the call tomorrow?" "No! You're on in five minutes." That was the fastest half hour of my life.

At the time, I was appearing in a production of Brendan Behan's play, The Hostage, as a Russian sailor in a brothel, and the costume director had given me a buzz cut with pinking shears! That Jeopardy aired on Memorial Day. Everybody was home. I got calls from friends living God knows where. A year later I scored an appearance in the last episode of Route 66. I returned to USF to study sociology. I left school and became a steamship agent. I loved the work but it put a strain on the marriage and my wife divorced me. Five years later I married again. She hated jazz. For seventeen years, I was separated from my music. Finally, we divorced and I was free.

I have lived in many places. I am currently based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Here, I am able to pursue my passions: theater, music, and poetry, although, these days, too much of my energy must be devoted to survival. I have a good memory, so my brain is stuffed with music, poetry, and everything I've stumbled across in eighty years.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?
Sixty years, off and on.

How often do you go out to hear live music?
As often as I can afford it.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?
For starters I'll quote Keith Jarrett. "Jazz happens and it's gone. You have to be present." Same thing I love about theater: the ephemerality. There's an exchange between performer and audience.

What are the elements of an amazing concert?
The music, the performers. In 1957, I stumbled into some funky auditorium I don't remember the name of in Seattle. The following musicians came out, played three songs, and split: George Shearing, Bud Powell, Lester Young, and Billie Holiday. I thought I was dreaming. I was saying, "That's Billie Holiday!" to people around me. I've caught many amazing gigs.

What is the farthest you've traveled to get to a jazz performance?
The first time I went to Paris coincided with the Paris Jazz Festival. I went to the Parc Floral, knowing that Tom Harrell, a friend, was playing. He had a great band: Conrad Herwig, Greg Osby, Ralph Peterson, Xavier Davis and two guys I forget. I knew Xavier from the Artists' Quarter. Angela, Tom's wife, was selling CDs and said, "What are you doing here? This isn't Minnesota." Me: "I didn't want to miss the gig."

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?
A few years ago, I passed on an Astor Piazzolla concert. He died four months later. Never pass up a chance.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?
Too many. Buddy Bolden, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker.

What makes a great jazz club?
Freedom, ambiance, affordability, good players/singers. Of course, I loved the Artists' Quarter in Lowertown, St. Paul. And I loved the old Blackhawk in San Francisco. When I was stationed on Treasure Island, every time I had a few bucks I headed for the Blackhawk, a nightclub in the Tenderloin that became my second home. I hung out there, fearlessly, in my little sailor suit. I dug it all: Shelly Manne's quintet with Monty Budwig, Stu Williamson, Richie Kamuca, Russ Freeman. Freeman was a garrulous cat, who I saw talking to three very cool men. Later I asked him: "Russ, who were those guys?" "The Montgomery Brothers; call themselves The Mastersounds." [Ed: Wes Montgomery and younger brother Buddy Montgomery, along with Richard Crabtree and Benny Barth, had a band called the Mastersounds] I also caught Cal Tjader's great quintet: Al McKibbon, Vince Guaraldi, Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, who let me touch his drums. I had a good conversation with Dave Brubeck at the bar. I regret not having talked with Paul Desmond. Who knew he would die so soon?

Which club(s) are you most regularly to be found at?
Crooners Jazz and Supper Club in north Minneapolis. The owner, Mary Tjosvold, added the Dunsmore Room to commemorate pianist Larry Dunsmore, her late husband. It's a fabulous listening space with a nine-foot Steinway and a strict NO talking rule. Great venue. Andrew Walesch, a fine singer and pianist, books top local and national acts. Get there if you can.

Is there a club that's no longer around that you miss the most?
Of course, the AQ.

Tell us about your work there.
Legendary job. Kenny Horst had revived the Minneapolis Artists' Quarter. I convinced him to let me take care of the door. In September 2000, we moved to the Hamm Building and stayed for fourteen years. Fourteen years of incredible music and musicians. What a ride!

Kenny believed in low prices so I collected the modest covers and managed the crowds, which were double packed for Happy Apple [Dave King, Michael Lewis, and Eric Fratzke] gigs. I got to introduce the talent and, on rare occasions, I would perform some of Lord Buckley's routines. What fun! Lew Tabackin once told the crowd I was the "Peewee Marquette of the Midwest." I made a zillion friends, met so many fine musicians, such as yourself and I treasure the whole experience.

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?
Several! While I was at FSU, one night, Ricky Powell, a high school friend I had mistakenly labeled as square, told me there was a little jam in the lobby: two cats from Florida A & M were coming over. Forty years later he asked me: "You know who those guys were?" "No." "Julian Adderley and Nat Adderley." They were college kids!

In Honolulu, I found Martin Denny's Exotica band alternating nights with a Juilliard-trained pianist named Rene Paulo. One night, a shipmate and I found a little joint called The Clouds. In a small club was a trio backing a striking singer. She was over six feet tall, wearing a sarong, and barefoot. She said Watusi blood accounted for her height. She sang mostly calypso and a few covers. She was so interesting. I bought her drinks and talked to her every break, all night. Her name was Maya Angelou. Later, I found her album, Miss Calypso. Still the best version of "Calypso Blues" I've heard.

How do you discover new artists?
Radio first of all, then word-of-mouth.

Vinyl, CDs, MP3s, streaming?
CDs and streaming. At one point, I had a fair record collection: Early Charles Mingus, my beloved Clifford Brown and, among others, an EP of Charlie Parker with strings ("[Serge] Kousseviztsky's cats" as he called them). The whole liner was in Japanese. I loaned my collection to Pat Chamburs, a well-known local DJ, for his Friday night jazz show. He skipped to New York with Mary Hall. She changed her name to Lauren Hutton and became a model. Pat hooked up with the George Ohsawa [Macrobiotic] Foundation. I never got my records back.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play and why?
Piano. I studied classical for a few years. If I had the chops, it's all I would do. Another life perhaps.

What's your desert island disc?
One? Impossible. Don't even get me started.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?
The kids. I know so many who persist, find gigs, play all the time. It's amazing. Most are good, too. It gives me hope.

Is there anything else we should know about you?
I'm a professional Santa. I'm a Super-Ager. Poetry is my real metier. I have a prodigious memory for music and lyrics. I have COPD, dysphagia, and a vestibular disturbance. Otherwise, as Sondheim wrote, I'm still here.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...

Photo credit: Andrea Canter

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