In Memoriam: Nathan Davis

Dr. Nathan Davis, founder and director of the Jazz Studies Program and a Pitt faculty member from 1969 to 2013, passed away April 9, 2018, in Palm Beach, Florida, at age 81.  In 2017, he was named to the International Academy Jazz Hall of Fame, which he created to honor the great musicians with whom he had performed and many of whom he brought to campus in the Annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert.

As the University noted upon his retirement, he “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.”

Among his many honors was receiving the BNY Mellon Jazz 2013 Living Legacy Award by the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation in a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. 

His many important accomplishments for the Music Department and the University of Pittsburgh include:

• the graduate curriculum in jazz, including research seminars alongside advanced improvisation and jazz composition, among other areas of knowledge;

• the undergraduate History of Jazz course, which he taught each semester to around 350 students, the largest course offered by the Music Department;

• the 48-year-old annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert, which brings international jazz stars to campus to work with students, present free lecture/demonstrations on campus and at community venues, and perform in concert at Carnegie Music Hall;

• the University of Pittsburgh Sonny Rollins International Jazz Archives, now in the University Archives where students can work with 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;

• the International Academy of Jazz Hall of Fame, founded in 1977, which honors jazz legends;

• the student Jazz Ensemble’s concerts and international performances in Brazil, Jamaica, Switzerland, Trinidad and elsewhere;

• the William R. Robinson Recording Studio in Bellefield Hall, which provides students with hands-on education in recording techniques;

• a peer-reviewed jazz journal, called International Jazz Archives Journal and recently relaunched as Jazz and Culture published by the University of Illinois Press;

• his Jazzopera: Just Above My Head (2004), which fused jazz, gospel, art, and dance;

• directing the Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Thelonious Monk Institute’s Steans Music Institute Summer Jazz Program in Aspen, Colorado, and serving as jazz master faculty member at the annual Ravinia Festival in Chicago, all of which provided new opportunities for Pitt students and brought him in touch with the most promising young musicians, some of whom he recruited to Pitt.

Nathan 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 performing in Europe with some of the world’s greatest jazz musicians including Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Donald Byrd, Ray Charles, Kenny Clarke, Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon, and Woody Shaw, he answered the call to create a jazz studies program and to bring his knowledge of performance, history, and research to benefit the students at Pitt. His influence remains foundational for our work, and he will always be a part of us. 

Among the tributes to Nathan Davis are the following:

Ten Facts About Nathan Davis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Nathan Davis Dies at 81, JazzTimes