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Creative jazz educator Nathan Davis to retire

| Friday, April 26, 2013, 3:18 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Musician and teacher Nathan Davis in his Bradford Woods home Friday, April 26, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Musician Nathan Davis in his Bradford Woods home Friday, April 26, 2013.

Nathan Davis is retiring after 43 years as director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

Davis, 76, initiated jazz and ethnomusicology studies at the university, founded the annual Jazz Seminar and Concert, along with the William Robinson Recording Studio, established a Jazz Hall of Fame and a Jazz Journal that publishes academic articles about the music.

His work was so intense that N. John Cooper, dean of the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, says he is convinced the university will have to replace him with two people, one to handle performance aspects and one for academics.

“Nathan is an extraordinarily creative individual,” he says. “He is an institution builder.”

Having seen Davis build the institution of jazz studies at Pitt, Cooper says, “we don't want to fall away from it.”

Davis, however, says most of his success as an educator and program director comes from “knowing the right people, because it's not about me. I'm no genius.”

His retirement goes into effect June 28.

The university already has begun efforts to “continue the amazing tradition” Davis established, Cooper says.

But there is no deadline to replacing him, and the success of such tasks generally is unpredictable.

Davis' work goes beyond academic success, says Sean Jones, assistant professor of music at Duquesne University, who, like Davis, is blending a teaching and performing career.

“He means a great deal to me as a young African American,” Jones says. “He fought all the battles back then to get the music passed on the younger cats like me.”

In 1969, when Davis took the position at Pitt, it was unheard of to have a person basically known as a performer teaching in the little-explored area of jazz studies, Jones says.

“He made it easier for people like me to move in that direction,” he says.

The Kansas City native says he plans on doing more composing, and he and his wife, Ursula, probably will be splitting residential time between their home in Bradford Woods and a condo near Boca Raton, Fla. He also says his wife would like to spend some time in Paris as well.

They have two adult children, Joyce and Pierre.

Besides performing on the saxophones and all reeds, Davis is an arranger and composer. Earlier this year, his piano-cello duet “Matryoshka Blues” was premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York City. He also is the author of an opera, “Just Above My Head,” which premiered in Pittsburgh in 2004. He currently is working on a ballet.

He has degrees from the University of Kansas, certificates of study from the Sorbonne in Paris and a doctorate from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, which he earned after returning to the United States from a performing career in Europe.

“Why would I leave (Europe)?” he says about his attitude back in the '60s. “Playing every night? With the best guys in the world?”

Davis was in the Army in Europe after graduating from Kansas, and his performance career blossomed after appearances in an Army all-star band and one in which he met Pittsburgh-native drummer Kenny Clarke.

Clarke lured him to Paris, Davis says, where he became part of an expatriate movement with such performers as trumpeter Donald Byrd and saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Dexter Gordon.

He also began studying composition with Andre Hodeir and at the Sorbonne, as well as teaching at the Paris American Academy of Art. When Pitt reached out to him to become an assistant professor in music, he was interested.

He says Richard Roy, the head of the Paris American Academy, “negotiated” for him and got him the title “director of jazz studies,” which he says helped in the early days when fellow academicians were doubtful of the program's worth.

His role at the university picked up right away when he set the stage for the seminar and concert with a visit by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, who were playing at the Crawford Grill in the Hill District. Davis had played with Blakey in Europe and sat in with them at the Crawford.

“It just sort of happened,” Davis says of beginning what has become a jazz institution.

The loss of Davis is going to be a tough one to handle, Cooper says.

“We are going to miss Nathan,” he says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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