Essential Pittsburgh
3:32 pm
Wed July 31, 2013

Local Jazz Pioneer is Living Legacy

Saxophonist and educator established, in 1969, one of only a few curriculum-based jazz studies programs at a major university.
Saxophonist and educator established, in 1969, one of only a few curriculum-based jazz studies programs at a major university.
Credit University of Pittsburgh School of Music

Multi-instrumental jazz musician Dr. Nathan Davis is the founder of the Jazz Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh and the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert.  He recently announced his retirement from Pitt and reflected back on his career in the United States and in Europe, and his legacy in the world of jazz.

Davis received his PhD from Wesleyan University in 1974 after writing his dissertation on the late Charlie Parker.  family ties made it possible for Davis to interview Parker’s brother as well as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie the thesis.  After graduation, like many other African American jazz musicians of the time, he decided to relocate to Paris to play his music.

“It’s not that you had to have a name, it’s how good you were or how artistic you were,” Davis explains. He, along with other jazz greats such as Eric Dolphy and Kenny Clarke, remembers playing for hours in clubs and cafes in France.  He also remembers musicians such as Clarke having one hour TV specials. This was somewhat unusual for the American musicians because it was a rarity for even the most famous players in the States to be allotted that length of time. Davis describes that Europeans had a fascination with the musical genre. 

Eventually, after a request from Clarke to come back to the states, Davis returned to help his peers open up university programs for jazz.  Davis moved to Pittsburgh where he started the University of Pittsburgh jazz studies program and enjoyed seeing jazz music put on the same plane as classical music.  Davis retired last spring and will receive the BNY Mellon Jazz Living Legacy Award in October.