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May 27, 2004

Jazz + Gospel + Classical Music + Modern Dance = Nathan Davis’s “Jazzopera: Just Above My Head”

“Jazzopera: Just Above My Head” – composed by Pitt jazz studies director Nathan Davis, and based on the celebrated novel by Davis’s old Paris friend, James Baldwin – finally will get its world premiere June 9 at 8 p.m. in the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) Theater, 9th Street and Fort Duquesne Boulevard, Downtown.

Presented by the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh through June 13, the production will feature local and international opera soloists, a 30-voice gospel choir, six renowned jazz stars (including Davis on saxophone), a full symphony orchestra and a troupe of seven dancers.

“Jazzopera” sounds like a limited title for what promises to be a distinctive mix of jazz, gospel, Western classical music and modern dance.

“Each of those elements will remain faithful to its original genre,” Davis says, “but they will mix within the piece, which makes it a little unique. It’s not going to be just jazz guys playing jazz and calling it opera.”
As the Opera Theater describes it, Baldwin’s story concerns “two families, linked through love and loss, brought together through jazz, gospel singing and the church, and divided by crises of incest, drug addiction, race riots and murder.”

“Just overwhelming,” says Davis of the 1979 novel, which his wife Ursula recommended as source material after Davis announced his ambition in the early 1980s to compose an opera as a tribute to his fellow Pitt music department faculty member, Claudia Pinza. (“I have so much respect for Claudia and feel lucky to have her as a colleague,” Davis says.)
Ursula Davis had written a book about ex-patriot Americans – including Baldwin, to whom her husband had introduced her. She condensed the 500-page novel into a 78-page libretto. “My wife is probably the most well-read person I’ve met when it comes to black literature. Which is funny,” Davis says with a deep chuckle, “’cause she’s German.”

Davis composed “Jazzopera” in hotel rooms and on planes and trains while touring Europe in the early ’80s with his Paris Reunion Band. Initially, he sought advice on writing for opera singers from acclaimed mezzo-soprano Mildred Miller Posvar.

Posvar, a Metropolitan Opera star and founder of the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, also was the wife of Pitt’s then-chancellor, Wesley W. Posvar, who died in 2001. She invited Davis to the chancellor’s residence to look over what he had written. “Now when I look back on it,” Davis confides, “I think, ‘Wow, I was pretty bold asking for advice from this great opera star who also happened to be the chancellor’s wife!

“I thought Millie might give me 15 minutes of her time, but she ended up meeting with me a couple of times. She spent hours recommending changes and corrections, like giving the singers more of a break between lines.”
Davis copyrighted his opera in 1985. A fellow member of the Three Rivers Arts Festival Committee recruited corporate backers who pledged $1 million for a full-scale production. But then an attorney pointed out that, while Baldwin had given oral approval for an opera based on “Just Above My Head,” the author had not provided written permission.
“So, we were stuck,” recalls Davis, who tried vainly to contact Baldwin for the written go-ahead.
Then one day in December 1987, while touring Europe, Davis turned on the television in his Paris hotel room. Baldwin’s face filled the screen.
“There’s Jimmy’s picture and the news that he’s dead,” Davis remembers. “I said, ‘Damn! What a drag, you know? Jimmy was such a great talent.”
The two artists had met in Paris during the glory years of the ex-pat jazz scene in the early 1960s, when writers, painters, designers and Hollywood stars would hang out at famous clubs such as the Blue Note and the Club St. Germain, where Davis played saxophone in Kenny Clarke’s band.
“Kenny was the No. 1 jazz drummer in Paris, and Jimmy used to come in all the time to hear us play. He’d sit there writing, drinking, listening to the music. He was really into jazz.
“You know,” Davis adds, “one of the characters in another of his books, a young black saxophone player – I swear to God that was me.” Besides mourning his friend that night in December 1987, Davis said goodbye to ever seeing his opera produced. Baldwin had never provided the written OK for “Just Above My Head” to be adapted as an opera.
Or so Davis thought.
“When I got back home after the tour, I’m going through the mail and there’s this letter from Jimmy saying, ‘Of course, I give you my permission to use my book as the basis of your opera. I’m looking forward to seeing it’ and all that.
“Which meant,” Davis concludes, “that Jimmy knew he was dying, and so he had taken care of unfinished business like writing that letter.”
Flash forward to this year, when Mildred Miller Posvar also remembered Davis’s unproduced opus. Her Opera Theater of Pittsburgh was casting about for a new work as the centerpiece for its current season, and she argued for “Jazzopera.”
Jonathan Eaton, the Opera Theater’s critically praised artistic director, will stage direct the production. Davis says: “[Eaton] impresses me, man, the job he’s doing to turn this into an on-stage story. I mean, it’s a beautiful novel, Ursula did a great job on the libretto, and I think my music’s pretty good, too. But Jonathan is the guy who’s got to bring it all alive on the stage. I couldn’t do that.”
Performances are June 9-12 at 8 p.m. and June 13 at 3 p.m. Tickets range in price from $25 to $60. For more details, call ProArts at 412/394-3353, noon-5:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, or order online at For more information, go to
Performances of “Jazzopera” coincide with the 2004 National Performing Arts Convention, to be held June 8-13 in Pittsburgh, a first-of-its-kind gathering of national arts leaders and organizations from various performing arts disciplines. See
– Bruce Steele

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