Pitt Jazz Studies Program Director Nathan Davis to Retire

Issue Date: 
May 28, 2013

University of Pittsburgh Professor of Music Nathan Davis, founder and director of the Pitt Jazz Studies Program and the long-running annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert, is retiring from the University effective June 28, 2013, it has been announced by N. John Cooper, the Bettye J. and Ralph E. Baily Dean of Pitt’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

Davis, 76, leaves a legacy of establishing a curriculum-based jazz studies program at a major university. He founded the Pitt Jazz Studies Program in 1969, when only two others existed in this country—one at Howard University established by Donald Byrd and the program at Indiana University at Bloomington set up by David Baker.

Davis is credited with infusing the Pitt community and the Pittsburgh region as a whole with jazz education, performance, inspiration, and appreciation during his 43-year Pitt career.

“Nathan has been both an institution and an institution builder,” said Cooper. “Our jazz program is unique in the balance it achieves between teaching, facilitating, and sharing with the public the very best of jazz—nationally, internationally, and from within our own student body, while at the same time making jazz a core element of the University’s music curriculum for our students, from Nathan’s beloved History of Jazz course to the heights of our doctoral program.”

Upon Davis’ retirement, Cooper will nominate him for the rank of Professor Emeritus.

On Oct. 5, 2013, Davis will be honored with the BNY Mellon Jazz 2013 Living Legacy Award in a special ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The award is a program of the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.

Among Davis’ notable accomplishments are:

• establishing the 42-year-old annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert, during which international jazz stars have come to campus, conducted free lecture/demonstrations, performed at community venues, and given a gala Saturday-night concert at Carnegie Music Hall;

• creating the University of Pittsburgh Sonny Rollins International Jazz Archives, which  houses original manuscripts, commercial recordings, photographs, musical instruments donated by jazz pioneers and their families, and video and audio recordings documenting the annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concerts;

• founding in 1977 the International Academy of Jazz Hall of Fame, which displays in Pitt’s William Pitt Union artifacts donated by jazz legends and which honors new inductees every year (one living and one deceased) who have made exceptional   contributions to jazz;

• founding the Pitt Jazz Ensemble, which comprises dedicated Pitt student jazz musicians and vocalists who present a concert on campus every spring and have performed internationally in Brazil, Jamaica, Switzerland, and Trinidad;

• building the state-of-the-art William R. Robinson Recording Studio, located in Pitt’s Bellefield Hall, which provides students with hands-on education in recording techniques;

• launching the peer-reviewed International Jazz Archives Journal, which offers research on jazz, publishes manuscripts of the music of internationally acclaimed jazz musicians, and is distributed around the world to 20 countries;

• composing Jazzopera: Just Above My Head—a unique operatic fusion of jazz, gospel, Western classical music, and modern dance—which premiered in Pittsburgh in 2004 and had musical elements the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said “were woven  wonderfully into the story line, providing tension, tenderness, and jubilation”;

• joining with the International Music Council of UNESCO to host an event at Paris-Sorbonne University in September 2004 that included a concert, roundtable discussion, and master classes by jazz artists for students from throughout the world;

• composing the cello-piano duet Matryoshka Blues commissioned by Russian cellist Misha Quint, who premiered the piece in January 2013 at the InterHarmony International Music Festival in New York City’s Carnegie Hall and whose latest CD also contains the piece; and

• serving as faculty director for the Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as a jazz master faculty member at the annual Ravinia Festival in Chicago, and as musical director for the Thelonious Monk Institute’s Steans Music Institute Summer Jazz Program in Aspen, Colo., and as an artist at the new Jazz Masters München Program held in March 2013 in Munich, Germany.

“Of all the things I’ve done, the one I’ve enjoyed the most is teaching the history of jazz to undergraduate students,” said Davis, whose introductory jazz history course has always been one of the most popular at Pitt. “I’ve seen young people in the airports in London, or in the audience in Paris, or even members of a TV crew at a special concert in Bahrain—all were former students of mine who came up to me and said they took that course. That showed me the connections we’ve been making.”

Originally from Kansas City, Davis earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Kansas and his PhD in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. After college, he played for two-and-a-half years in the U.S. Army Band while based in Berlin in what was then West Germany. Upon discharge, he remained in Europe and eventually settled for several years in Paris, where he performed and recorded with some of the world’s greatest jazz musicians, among them Art Blakely’s Jazz Messengers, Donald Byrd, Ray Charles, Pittsburgh-born Kenny Clarke, Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon, and Woody Shaw.

Davis studied ethnomusicology at the Sorbonne in 1967 and composition under French composer and eminent jazz critic André Hodeir in 1968 before he received the offer to create a jazz studies program and teach at Pitt. Davis has composed more than 200 original compositions, among them not only jazz works and Jazzopera, but film scores and four symphonies as well. He has authored several books, including Flute Improvisation (Armstrong Publishing, 1975); African American Music: A Philosophical Look at African American Music in Society (Ginn Pr, 1996), which he coauthored with his wife, Ursula Broschke Davis; and Writings in Jazz (Kendall/Hunt, 2002).