Nathan Davis, Jazz Saxophonist and Educator, Is Dead at 81
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLOAPRIL 17, 2018
Nathan Davis, a jazz saxophonist, composer and educator who helped establish a place for African-American music in the academy, died on April 8 in Atlantis, Fla. He was 81.
His death, at the JFK Medical Center, was confirmed by his son, Pierre, who said the cause was congestive heart failure.
After spending nearly all of the 1960s in Paris, Mr. Davis returned to the United States in 1969 to become the founding director of the jazz studies program at the University of Pittsburgh. Early on, he envisioned the academy as a place where jazz musicians might be able to write their own histories and situate their work within the greater legacy of black American art.
“I wrote the first curriculums for the program, and I think within a year or something like that I got calls from Yale, I got calls from the University of Illinois,” he said in an interview with the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation in 2013. “I sent it out to a bunch of schools.”
In 1970 he started an annual jazz seminar that continues today; its first edition featured performances and discussions from prominent musicians, including the drummer Art Blakey. (Mr. Davis had played in Blakey’s band in Europe.)
He also founded the university’s Sonny Rollins International Jazz Archives and its International Academy of Jazz Hall of Fame, and he had a recording studio built on the Pittsburgh campus.
Mr. Davis had become part of the jazz scene in Paris after leaving the Army in 1962; while in the service he had been playing in bands overseas. In Paris, where many American expatriate jazz players were thriving, he apprenticed with the drummer and bebop pioneer Kenny Clarke.
Playing regularly at the club Le Chat Qui Pêche, Mr. Davis accompanied well-known American musicians passing through the city, including the trumpeters Donald Byrd and Woody Shaw.
He became prolific as a bandleader, too, releasing three albums in 1965 alone. He also took classes in ethnomusicology at the Sorbonne, learning about music from India and Brazil.
By the time Mr. Davis moved back to the United States, jazz’s commercial appeal was in decline, but the music was entering a new era of institutional enshrinement. He accepted a three-year contract to help the University of Pittsburgh start its jazz program but ended up staying on for 44 years. He retired in 2013.
Though he never became a star as a bandleader, Mr. Davis was hardly limited by his academic duties. He continued to perform and record frequently, notably on the funk-influenced “If” (1976) and the sprawling “Suite for Dr. Martin Luther King” (1977). All told, he recorded more than 20 albums as a leader.
He was especially abundant as a composer, writing more than 200 jazz tunes, symphonies and film scores. He also published books, including “Writings in Jazz”(2003) and “African American Music: A Philosophical Look at African American Music in Society” (1996), written with his wife, Ursula Broschke-Davis.
She and their son survive him, as do their daughter, Joyce; three grandchildren; and his brother, Raymond.
Nathan Tate Davis was born on Feb. 15, 1937, in Kansas City, Kan., not far from the birthplace of Charlie Parker. His father, Raymond Davis, was a boxer; his mother, Rosemary Gates, who raised him, was a nurse. He began his career in the band of the pianist Jay McShann, who had helped propel Parker to stardom.
Mr. Davis graduated from the University of Kansas, where he studied music education. Years later, while teaching at Pittsburgh, he earned a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
In the 1980s he formed the Paris Reunion Band, a midsize ensemble featuring heavyweight musicians who had played on the Paris scene in the 1960s, among them the saxophonist Joe Henderson and Mr. Shaw.
In a review of the band’s first performances in 1986, John S. Wilson of The New York Times wrote that it “had the polish, the accomplished ease and a depth in repertory that usually come after much more experience working as a unit.”
On retiring from Pittsburgh, Mr. Davis received the 2013 BNY Mellon Living Legacy Award from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. That same year, the classical cellist Misha Quint performed his composition “Matryoshka Blues” at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall.
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