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.