Nathan Davis: Back From Here

Russ Musto By

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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.

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