Professor Emeritus of Music Nathan Davis — pioneer in the academic study of jazz as the founder and director of the Pitt Jazz Studies Program and the annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert — died April 8, 2018, at age 81.
Upon his 2013 retirement from the University, Davis was recognized as “an institution and an institution builder” by N. John Cooper, then Bettye J. and Ralph E. Baily Dean of the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. Davis was celebrated for creating only the third curriculum-based jazz studies program at a major university in 1969 at Pitt. In its 48th year, the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert draws international jazz musicians to campus to present lectures and demonstrations and perform in the community, culminating in a star-studded concert.
Davis, a saxophonist who played and recorded widely throughout the years, also founded the University of Pittsburgh Sonny Rollins International Jazz Archives in the University Archives and the International Academy of Jazz Hall of Fame in the William Pitt Union. He established the Pitt Jazz Ensemble of student jazz musicians and vocalists, who present a concert on campus every spring and have performed internationally, and the William R. Robinson Recording Studio in Bellefield Hall for student use and education in recording methods. He also began the peer-reviewed International Jazz Archives Journal and was a composer of pieces in a plethora of musical genres, from jazz to classical, with fusions of multiple musical styles. His “Jazzopera: Just Above My Head” had its premiere in Pittsburgh in 2004, while the cello-piano duet “Matryoshka Blues” debuted in New York City in 2013 at the InterHarmony International Music Festival at Carnegie Hall.
He published several books, including “Flute Improvisation” (1975); “African American Music: A Philosophical Look at African American Music in Society,” with his wife, Ursula Broschke-Davis (1996); and “Writings in Jazz” (2002).
In 2013, he received the BNY Mellon Jazz Living Legacy Award from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
“Of all the things I’ve done, the one I’ve enjoyed the most is teaching the history of jazz to undergraduate students,” Davis said as he was retiring from the University.
Don Franklin, professor emeritus and Department of Music chair for much of the time Davis was at Pitt, noted Davis’ singular impact: “We both came to the University as faculty members the same year, so I was able to see first-hand the passion he brought. I’d even call it a missionary zeal. He was a force in the department and the high profile he brought to jazz will remain at the University.”
Born in Kansas City, Kansas, Davis earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Kansas and his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University. Following a stint in the U.S. Army Band in Berlin, Davis stayed in Europe, performing and recording in Paris. He studied ethnomusicology at Sorbonne University in 1967 and composition under French composer and jazz critic André Hodeir.
Dave Pistolesi, a longtime member of the Pitt Jazz Committee, recalled meeting Davis in 1969, as Davis performed with Art Blakey at the famed Crawford Grill in the Hill District neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Davis eventually served on Pistolesi’s Ph.D. committee — his thesis was a history of jazz — and Pistolesi helped organize Davis’ jazz events each year.
He remembered sitting in Davis’ office, trying to take care of business for that year’s jazz seminar: “His office door would be open, students would pop by. I told him, ‘Nathan, we have things to do!’
“He made time for everybody,” Pistolesi added. “He was a straight shooter, a warm guy.”
Davis also relished the chance to join the Pitt football team as honorary assistant coach for its last game in Pitt Stadium in 1999, which Pistolesi facilitated. (Pistolesi retired 13 years ago as academic advisor to Pitt athletes.) It gave Davis the chance to visit the locker room and to have lunch with the team. “He talked about that for 20 years,” Pistolesi said. “He loved Pitt athletics and he loved Pitt.”
Davis is survived by his wife; children Pierre and Joyce; three grandchildren; and a brother, Raymond.