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Steve Davis (trombonist)

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Steve Davis
Steve Davis 4.jpg
Davis at the Hartford Jazz Festival, 2007
Background information
Born (1967-04-14) April 14, 1967 (age 51)
Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.
Years active1980s–present
LabelsBrownstone, Criss Cross, Mapleshade, Posi-Tone, Smoke Sessions
Associated actsOne for All, Origin

Steve Davis (born April 14, 1967 in Worcester, Massachusetts) is an American jazz trombonist.

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  • Steve Davis Interview by Monk Rowe - 12/15/2017 - Clinton, NY
  • Steve Turre - 'SNL' Trombonist


My name is Monk Rowe and I'm happy to have Steve Davis with me today for the Fillius Jazz Archive. And I was going to introduce you as, you know, what you do, but I thought I'd let you do that. Because as a musician you probably wear many hats. SD: Including this one. MR: Including that one. SD: Yeah. Twelve bucks on Canal Street in New York. Well I play the trombone. I'm a musician who happens to play the trombone. I love jazz music, I have since I was a teenager. I compose music as well. I'm an educator, and, you know, very interested in many things in life, not just music, but that's been kind of my main area, certainly, of employment, and my life's work is involved in playing music and writing music and teaching music. MR: Is there one of those things that is the most important to you? SD: Well I would have to say probably just the playing has always come first, at least up to this point in my life. I'm 50 now. Just trying to be a good musician and a good player, and once again, I mean I wound up kind of settling on the trombone at around 14, 15 years old. But I love the bass. I almost was a bass player for a little while there in high school and college, and even some kind of on the down low doing some gigs around after college over the years. And I am a fan of the rhythm section, you know, I love the bass, I love the piano, and I've never had a piano lesson in my life but I've had many lessons in terms of being around great pianists and just great musicians who, that's one thing about jazz players in general, certainly many of the best horn players that I've ever met and been around, you know, we all can kind of sit down and play some changes on the piano and that translates to your horn. And when I teach my trombone students over the years, or if I go do a clinic or workshop or whatever, and there's a room full of hungry young trombone players, that they're all sitting in desks, there's 20 of them, 24 of them, whatever. And you walk into a room and they're all hungry and they look like, "There he is" at nine in the morning, and they want to take a bite out of your leg or something. I say that in jest of course. And I always kind of immediately go to, "Guys, if you want to be an improviser and a real jazz player slash jazz trombonist, you've got to play the piano on the trombone." And a lot of them go, "Huh? What do you mean?" And you know I always try to look at the music that way, that you are a human being first and foremost, hopefully every day of your life. Secondly you're a musician 24/7 without the horn in your hands or without sitting at the drums or whatever you play. Thirdly, you hope to be a very good or a great trombonist, in my case and in our case. So I try to establish that right off the bat. That there's kind of an order of things. MR: I totally agree. I can't imagine teaching - I teach saxophone here, and I couldn't begin to teach improvisers if I didn't have some piano skills, and then I try to pass that on to them if I can. SD: Yeah, yeah. And you know, when I was 18 and I came from Binghamton, New York to the University of Hartford to the Hartt School H-A-R-T-T, and I met Jackie McLean, the great Jackie McLean, and I came to study at that program, I knew zero piano. I mean very little. And ironically my grandmother, my nana on my mother's side was a wonderful stride pianist. I mean she could really play. And I've got a few cassettes. I wish we had more. But I grew up hearing her play and playing with her a little bit for a few precious years. She died when I was 19 in 1986. But she didn't read a note. She didn't read a note. She played everything in C or F and then when I started to play a little, you know, I would call a tune, "There'll Never Be Another You" or some little tune that I was learning, and she'd say, "Okay what key?" I'd say, "E flat" cause that was in the Real Book which was brand new then in those days. "In E flat." She'd say, "oh Jesus Chri-" you know she'd bitch and oh my God, oh God, and then just play great, just kill it in E flat. But you know it's funny, it's ironic that I grew up with her in my life and is often the case you just take people and things for granted, and I kind of thought well that's nana, everybody's grandmother can sit down and play "Undecided" and "Honeysuckle Rose" and you know, "Embraceable You" on the piano. Then I realized almost nobody's grandmother or nana could do that. And so I kind of learned totally - I came in totally raw. I was an ear player, totally. All through my adolescence. And then I started to learn 2-5-1, little voicings, yeah. MR: But if you think about it, isn't that a pretty good way to be, to develop your ears first. SD: Yeah. MR: And then learn some theory. SD: I feel that way. I wouldn't change a thing. And we were talking about Al Hamme, who is now retired from Binghamton University, or SUNY Binghamton when I was growing up. And you know, and you took a workshop there, I did too. And this would be oh my gosh, 1982. I had just started playing trombone for maybe a year. I played baritone horn before that, a euphonium, which was a result of playing trumpet at first, getting braces, almost quitting, wanting to quit, having to go talk to my dad. My mom said, "You need to ask your father if you're going to quit." And he told me that my grandsir used to say, "Well the king is the man who can," and "Davis's aren't quitters, what are your options?" And I said, "Well Mr. Ross said I could switch to a bigger mouthpiece, baritone, same fingerings." "Well give that a shot." I'm so glad I did. And anyway, so I wound up on the trombone, played the tuba a little bit too, and getting back to our point, the theory, and I think this happened to your too, you were saying where I'm there the first day, and Al Hamme, God bless him, he pulls out "Giant Steps." And I'd heard it, but it was just kind of a cool record to listen to, and it just hit me between the eyes. But he said something that stuck with me to this day. He said, "One, two, three, five." Just try to spell the changes. B major 7, D 7, G major 7, B flat 7, E flat major 7. One, two, three, five/One, two, three, five/One, two, three, five/One, two three, five. Then you have to elongate when you land on E flat major - is what Trane would play, one of the many things he played. And that really helped me a great deal. Just that simple principle. I thought oh I'd never ever thought about this, putting intervallic numbers to the chord sequences. And I was kind of off and running after that. And I didn't play the piano still for a number of years, but my mind was starting to correlate what I was hearing to intervals, and kind of putting numbers to them. And then when I got to Hartt we had a theory piano teacher, he's still there, one of my colleagues, Peter Woodard, who I believe studied with John Mohegan, who also taught people like Larry Willis and so Peter Woodard showed us some you know sevens, thirds and you know, ninths, and just they're kind of fundamentals of the piano. And you're trying to get your fingers to work. You know I was 18 years old and I felt kind of spastic, I just couldn't do it. And then one day you make a mistake and you go hey what's that? A major over C. You know, second inversion, A major triad over C. Hey I've heard this before. You know and you start finding things. And then you pick up your horn and put it on your horn. And to me that's, I mean we're not dealing with the rhythm of the music, which is really the main thing, and just having a sound, you know, just a good sound, a pleasant sound. MR: Do you require your students to be able to play all the major scales without, you know, like hesitation. SD: Yeah. I don't - I'm not particularly heavy-handed with those kind of tasks, but I do check their temperature. I've got four really good young trombone students, jazz trombone majors right now at the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at Hartt, University of Hartford. And, you know, just like I did, they all want to run, you know, go-go-go. And they don't really have control of their instrument and if you don't know your major scales or, I'll even go a little further and say chord qualities, like the basic chord qualities, major sevens, dominant sevens, minor sevens. Of course dominants are where you can really get into altering and, I say that's where all the action is you know. And up to the nine, eleven, thirteen, Dorian, minor, all that stuff that now I can address and teach and be a little bit systematic with it. But I don't dwell on it though. I also try to get them playing whatever they're interested in playing too, right off the bat. Like bring in a tune you like or are you writing anything. So I work with them in numerous areas to kind of keep them engaged and feeling personally connected to what they're doing. I'm there to help them find their voices. I'm not there to crank out a bunch of cookie cutter kind of clones or something. I mean that's no way, no one did that to me. Jackie McLean didn't do that to me. I didn't have a jazz trombone teacher at Hartt. MR: Interesting. SD: There wasn't one. But Professor McLean asked me, at my audition, who are you listening to? I said, "J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, Slide Hampton." He said, "You like Curtis Fuller?" I said, "Oh yeah. I have 'Blue Trane,'" which I bought in Ithaca, New York with my dad. I forget the - there was a great record store there, this was in the early, mid-80s and I bought a copy of "Blue Trane" in Ithaca. I'll never forget that. And he said, "Oh yeah? You like Curtis Fuller? Would you like to take some lessons with him?" And this was in 1985 and my jaw just hit the floor. You know just the thought of that was just so impossible to me. But that was one of his contemporaries, and this was thirty-some years ago, and true to his word my freshman year he brought Curtis Fuller to Hartt one day. And that was enough for me for four years, just to be around Curtis Fuller for a day. But, you know, and then he came back another time. He also brought Gracham Moncur, he brought Steve Turre several times, who was playing with Woody Shaw at the time, and that was very exciting. So, you know, I did have a few lessons but not really. I just sort of got to meet some of my heroes quickly. And then when I went to New York they'd remember. And my buddy John Hasselback from Buffalo, he's a great trombone player, he was at Hartt at the time too. We were roommates. So we'd make our sojourns down from Hartford down to New York City, go to see J.J. in '87 when he had his comeback, go to see Curtis play with Benny Golson and Art Farmer with the jazztet when they had their resurgence in the 80s, or Thomas all-stars, Harold Land, Bobby Hutcherson, Cedar, Buster, Billy Higgins. So you know they'd remember. "Oh those are Jackie's little guys." You know, Curtis would remember. MR: "Jackie's little guys." I like that. Were those things you saw mostly in the jazz clubs? SD: Yeah. Sweet Basil. MR: Yeah. What did you learn by listening and observing? SD: Uh, it's hard to put it into words. It was just magnificent, those days. Obviously just the music was incredible. The aura. It just felt to hip to be in the room with Cedar Walton's trio and whether it was David Williams, Buster Williams or Ron Carter, I saw all three of those versions of Cedar's trio. Usually it was David Williams. But I remember hearing Ron Carter, Sir Ron, who subsequently, years later, you know I got to play with Cedar and record with him. I'm still playing in Ron Carter's big band every year. What an honor to wind up playing with your heroes. But in 1987 I was 19, 20, and I used to love to go hear the trio gigs. Especially Cedar or Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan. And it was just, but also, or to go over to Bradley's later, you know just to be able to be accepted by these great musicians. It was a cultural thing. I always made a joke, because it probably happened once when I was young and I was in there. And it was John Hicks, the late great John Hicks, the pianist and it was at Bradley's. And he kind of looked over at me like oh man this guy, who's this guy. He was trying to get a drink and I was probably trying to bashfully get a drink, and I'm just standing there, probably just corny, you know, a young kid. And he's like oh man this guy. But then later I think he heard me with Jackie McLean and the next time I went in he kind of recognized me. And oh yeah, trombone, Jackie Mc, yeah. And to me that was everything. I don't know how much of that happens still in the same way today. I think it's a little different now. MR: A recent person I was talking to was commenting on a lot of the young musicians become leaders too soon, before they even know how to be sidemen. SD: And sidewomen. MR: And observe good leaders. SD: Yes. And it's not their fault in a lot of ways. Because there aren't as many gigs to be had where bands can work six nights a week, weeks on end, that's very rare these days. I mean it still exists but not that often. So a lot of young players have to, like we were talking about earlier, have to make their own opportunities to play. And I don't think anyone from our generation, or older than the twenty, thirty year olds now, begrudges them that at all, but there also, there's an attitude about it that, I think a lot of the young players want to be accepted or mentored. They're just a little awkward about how to go about it. I think because of technology, which is a double edged sword, there's so much great about YouTube and FaceBook and instant-this and that everything's just at your fingertips. And there's so much great about that, and then there's so much not good about it. And it's kind of created a kind of everything is everything is anything, whenever you want it attitude. And that even permeates into the jazz world where generally young up-and-coming players are quite reverent and respectful of the masters or their elders. Whether it's on a local scene or if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to be around somebody who's a name, an established master of jazz. You know generally, and I think it still exists, that the younger players generally do have a sort of awe and appreciation of being there. But I don't know, like I was kind of hinting at before, I think a lot of that has been a little bit just kind of washed away by social media and just how easy it is to have access to everything, that they - MR: It's hard to differentiate from what really is important when everything is there at your fingertips. Well I was going to start out with a really hard question but I saved it until now. Let's suppose I cornered you and I said I have two talented grandkids and they really want to be jazz musicians, and they're 16 and 17. What would you say about that? SD: Yeah I understand why you framed it as a hard question. If they have the burning desire to play, and they love it, they've got to do it. They've got to be jazz musicians. They've got to do it. But I would also say there is absolutely no shame in diversifying your possibilities to make yourself as employable as possible. My old man always reminds me that it's commerce. Yeah it's art, but you'd better figure out how to make it commerce too, because you've got to make a living. So I would - and this is what I encourage students who are jazz majors at the university level that I've been around quite a bit and over 26 years now. It's a way of life. It's not going to be easy financially. And, excuse me, be open. I mean it's 2017. Be open minded to all kinds of music. Sure what we know as jazz is home. Certainly it is for me still and always will be. But I love all kinds of music. I've done some gigs I never dreamed that I would be involved with, and not just for money, just life experiences. You meet some people and you give it a whirl. "Hey that's kind of cool" you know. So I think that, or other areas of interest - my wife Abena Koomson Davis, she teaches ethics and social justice at the Fieldston School in Riverdale in the Bronx, New York, went to Sarah Lawrence, went to Columbia for master's. She's a scholar. She also is an incredibly talented great singer and was in the cast of Fela about Fela Kuti. She played Fela's mother for three years, and she sings in really hip wedding bands that do mostly R & B and soul. And she sings in a rock band that's also super-hip called Van-Davis. They took their name from Van Halen and Miles Davis. And it's a quartet. And they play at the 55 Bar in New York and in the village and all kinds of gigs. And she's a great jazz singer. She's kind of an undiscovered gem. She just doesn't get to do it enough. So look out for that, because husband and wife are going to be doing something in the coming few years. And so she does it all. She makes a good living, she loves her teaching and her scholarship and social activism, and she also leads, well she does lead it when she's there but she's involved with the Women's Resistance Revival Choir if people look at up on YouTube. And they've been doing a lot this past year which is great and much needed. So she's doing all kinds of stuff. And it's not a fabrication. It's not an obligation. She loves all of it. Why not. MR: So you've got to wear, like yourself, a lot of hats. The days of just playing your saxophone are pretty much gone. SD: Probably. You know where there's a will there's a way. I would also remind grandkids or young players this: you'll always have that music in you. I mean you're going to be a musician no matter what. McCoy Tyner drove a taxicab after he made all the Impulse records with Coltrane. "A Love Supreme," all that. Now he did it for about eight months I heard, then he played with Art Blakey and the Messengers. This was in the mid, late-60s after he left Coltrane. And things worked out pretty well for Mr. Tyner I would say. He's an icon and just one of the greatest ever. So if McCoy could drive a cab for a while, I think any of us can do something to get by. Right? MR: Yeah. That's a good way to put it. SD: All right. I hope that answers your question. MR: It does. The trombone. Is there something about the trombone that requires more skill at some particular thing than some of the other instruments? SD: I don't think more. I think they're all hard. I mean every instrument is beautiful. Every instrument has its own idiosyncrasies. I think it's - when I say hard I think it's difficult and requires a lot of dedication and just experience and living with your instrument to really develop a true personal sound and fluency technically. And when I say technically, not just for the sake of technique but to have the technique that you need to express yourself appropriately in any given moment in the music. So I don't regard the trombone any differently, really, but with that said, yeah the instrument has its idiosyncrasies and I've always tried to be as clear a player as possible. Be as articulate as I can be. MR: I'm glad you said that. Because I was listening to some of your recordings, and then I was listening to Bill Watrous, and to me, you articulate considerably more than some other trombone players I've heard. Like I relate it to sort of using consonants when we speak. And some guys hardly tongue at all to start a note. And I noticed that about you and I liked it. SD: Well thank you. I appreciate it. You know, I mean back to the trombone, and it's natural characteristics or idiosyncrasies, and yeah there are ways to sort of use the natural breaks in the horn and use the slide and, excuse me, pardon me, you can, you know get certain passages to come out easily without tonguing each and every note. You know, what I've tried to do is you know, utilize those things about the horn but still articulate lightly, like a soft doo tongue. So that the notes have enough punctuation that the rhythm is strong, so that the rhythm section, the bass players, the pianists, guitar, whatever, they can feel ya. They can feel your time, your beat. And when I first started playing the horn, I mean my dad had "The Sidewinder." There's no trombone on that. I listened to "Kind of Blue." There's no trombone on that. I listened to a lot of Blue Note records, Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley and Horace Silver, Junior Cook and Blue Mitchell. No trombone on that. I just love the feeling of the music. Clifford Brown, Max Roach, it's either Harold Land or Sonny Rollins on those records. I wasn't even really thinking about the trombone so much, just the language. Then of course I did hear "Cape Verdean Blues" Horace Silver, where J.J. plays on three tracks along with, at the time, a young Woody Shaw and Joe Henderson. And "Nutville" is on that record and a slow C minor piece called "Bonita," which was the one I could actually play along with at first. And I heard J.J.'s sound on that in my bedroom in Binghamton on Crary Avenue in the early 80s and was just galvanized. I just thought that's the trombone. I mean I hadn't really heard much other trombone before that. A little bit of Trummy Young with Louis Armstrong on a Smithsonian collection, and I liked that too. Then I got J.J. in my ear and it was just, I got spoiled rotten. I mean I heard J.J. Johnson, then I heard Curtis on the Messengers records, absolutely fell in love with him. To this day he's one of the absolutely, I think, greatest trombonists ever, most important improvisers and prolific. Then I got to Slide Hampton. But see along the way I heard Carl Fontana on one of those Dick Gibson Colorado jazz parties, next to Kai Winding, Trummy Young and Urbie Green playing "Undecided" which is a tune my nanna used to play on the piano so I thought oh yeah, I know this song. And I loved them all but then Carl comes in and he's so smooth and I was like ooh, I like that. And you know, and then Rossolino of course. Al Grey, oh man. I mean I could go on and on, Julian Priester, so many records. I mean I love them all now. Steve Turre was a big influence on me. So I certainly appreciate all the players. But there's something about J.J. and Curtis and Slide and particularly J.J. because he really changed the game when he came along. He was our Charlie Parker on the trombone. MR: Well do you recall the Down Beat blindfold tests? SD: Oh yeah. MR: Okay. So are you ready? SD: Wish me luck. You know I'm afraid it might be me. MR: You don't have to be afraid. SD: Oh my God. Is that "All the Things You Are"? MR: You know it's from the Rochester Jazz Festival. SD: Oh yeah. That's Joe Farnsworth playing drums. Yeah. I was like the drummer's killing. That's Joe. MR: Well it's not that great a recording because it was live, I mean quality-wise, but I wanted to play it for you because the older gentlemen that I've interviewed, the fellas that were playing back in the 30s and 40s, they always insisted that you have to find your own sound. They'd say, "Sweets Edison? One note you'd know." And it's important. So what makes Steve Davis's trombone - SD: Identifiable? MR: Identifiable. What do you hope is identifiable? SD: Yeah. You know, that's a great question. I mean I've always tried to sing through my horn. I love melodies. And no matter how much stuff you want to play and try to get into the intricacies of harmony and rhythm and play different things that are kind of on the edge a little or in the cracks, you know, or a little inside, outside, all that hip stuff. I mean I love that too, I love it. But when the chips are down I like to pat my foot and play a pretty song for people. I feel that musicians, no matter what type of musician you are, I'm a jazz musician. I have been my whole life, since I was a kid. And our job is to play songs for people. That's our number one job. You'd better be able to play some "Happy Birthday" in whatever key people start singing it in, and hear it, pick it up and play it and - it's December, no matter what your faith is it's that time of year where there are a lot of holiday chestnuts, pardon the pun, and so you've got to know these tunes. If someone says, "Oh can you play 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas'?" I hope so. Because you're going to embarrass yourself. Or on New Year's Eve, you're doing a little New Year's gig, and you better know "Auld Lang Syne" and just be able to just play it. Because if you're trying to play and work on Wayne Shorter's "Witch Hunt" and "Speak No Evil" and all these great modern classics, or write your own super hip stuff with time signature changes and all this, and you can't play "Auld Lang Syne" on New Year's Eve or "Happy Birthday" for your grandmother. What's going on there. That's not going to work. So you know, I hope that when people hear my sound they just say, "Oh yeah, there's Davis man, he's a pretty player. He plays sweet man, a sweet player." And that's good enough for me. And then, "Hey, ooh, listen to that" once in a while. Zap. You know, oh, that was hip. But I'm not trying to re-define the course of music every time I take a solo. That's for darn sure. I just want to take a good solo start to finish that's swinging and feels good for my fellow musicians and for the listener, most importantly. People who don't play. MR: That's a terrific answer. Thank you. We were talking about how everything is available in technology and there's been a lot of transcribed solos that are now viewable and listenable on the Internet. In fact I've seen a couple of yours that someone transcribed. SD: Yeah. It's kind of random. I see them and I go, "That one?" Like wow. Okay. MR: If a student came to you with one of those and said, "Well Mr. Davis the chord symbol says F minor 7 and you played an F sharp. Can you tell me why you did that?" SD: Yeah I probably could if I heard it back, because it was leading to something else. You were on your way somewhere. I mean there are classic jazz compositions, tunes, that have notes in them that are technically incorrect with what the chord might be but they're the rightest note in the world. Eddie Henderson, the great trumpeter, he said to me once along these lines, just at a gig or wherever we were, he leaned over to me and said, "You know Herbie Hancock could make C sharp sound like the rightest note ever over C major 7. Now see if Herbie Hancock played it it'd be the rightest note you could play. You know? Because he'd get to it somehow or pass through it, and I knew exactly what he meant. Yeah, sometimes the theoretical answer is not the answer. MR: But at the same time, I would think there'd be a circumstance where you might point out to a student who is improvising and something they played you might want to make them think about that or ask, in other words, are there wrong notes? SD: Well sure, sure. I mean I know the politically correct clich� answer is there are no wrong notes man and you know you can play anything you want. I mean that's true, if you know what you're doing. If you can resolve to something, or if you have some sort of awareness or plan about what you're playing, but otherwise I think that answer can be misconstrued or reappropriated in a not such a good way. "Well you can play anything." Well okay. I don't know if it's going to sound good, but sure you can. You know getting back to having a sound too, there's one thing I have to, when you played that for me, you know I wasn't expecting to hear me and so when I first heard it I have to confess I had a first - is that Slide? Is it J.J.? No. Oh it's me. Because I wasn't thinking of me. Or Curtis too. And you know I've been compared, certainly to J.J. a lot, and Curtis. And I just want to say on the record about that. If anybody says, "Oh Davis yeah, man, I hear a lot of J.J. in your playing." I say, "Thank you." That's nothing but a compliment. That's like telling a guard or a ballplayer that, "Man I see some Michael Jordan in your game." "Man you kind of remind me of Kobe Bryant a little bit." I mean what are you going to say? "Thanks. Thank you. That's an ultimate compliment." With that said, I certainly hope that my sound is identifiable because I'll never be J.J. Johnson that's for sure, or Curtis Fuller. I'm stuck with this guy. So I may as well enjoy him. And I had to come to terms with that, Monk, at some point. But I think as an educator I think it's totally fine to emulate your heroes for a while. Go ahead. You know? Jackie McLean was still listening to Bird when he was in his 60s. You know? I mean he loved him. But he sounded like J. Mac. It is important though to trust yourself after a while. Just play you. MR: Are you thinking, normally are you thinking about the chord changes when you're improvising? SD: Wow. Yeah. I mean not always, no. It is, it's a hard thing to put into words, isn't it? It's tonal centers sometimes. Let's say rhythm changes. Good old B flat rhythm changes, right? If you get too bogged down thinking two chords per measure, you know, and you're just literally trying to spell, that, I mean that's hard for anybody to do. But if you get to know, as J. Mac used to call "the language," he would kind of say learn your turnarounds, play your B flat stuff through these measures, you know, so you're thinking a little bigger and you're not thinking so specifically that if you analyze them they're the flat 9 of G 7, they're the major third of this, you know. So it is technically embodying or delineating all these changes. So yes I do think about it but there are times when you kind of, you've been doing it long enough that it becomes second nature and you let go of that and try to go into another plane of consciousness really, where you're trying to play things to engage the rhythm section. For years I've had the privilege to play with the great Larry Willis, the great pianist, and he's a dear friend of mine. And he's in his 70s. And we really hit it off about, almost 20 years ago now, at least 15 years we've been playing a lot, whether it's his band or my band or whatever collaborations, or just on gigs together. And you know, that guy Larry is such an incredible accompanist, he's a great soloist, a great composer, but he's a really masterful comper accompanist. If you try to fill up all the space, you're a moron. Why would you do that? The music will suffer if you've got someone that brilliant and sensitive, play something, see what you get back, and then he's going to play something to push you somewhere, but it's all supportive. You know I've played with Chick Corea quite a bit, the same thing. I mean leave some space, because you'll be glad you did. MR: That should be in caps, all caps. SD: Yeah. I mean I'm still trying to get there. Because we all have that tendency, you want to play all your stuff and you just think wait, what am I doing? You're squandering an opportunity to converse with incredible great musicians. MR: That sort of leads me to a question I was contemplating about are there any things on the bandstand that can annoy you? SD: Yeah to be honest, yeah. I mean you know usually not, usually not. I always look at the bandstand or the stage you know when you look at a piano or ever if there's no piano but particularly when there's a piano and a drumset and maybe an amp for the bass, and whatever it may be, whatever the set-up and microphone, and even just an empty stage or an empty bandstand and it's just there and I get the same feeling when I go to Cooperstown, ironically not too far from here, I've taken my kids there several times because we're big, I'm a big baseball fan, I just love it. And I look at Doubleday Field just empty. I sit there in the bleachers. And I've also been when there's exhibition games. But when it's just empty, or a Little League field. I've been on many little league fields in West Hartford and throughout Connecticut because I have two boys who have played, and I have coached a little bit and grew up playing in Binghamton. And I always looked at an empty basketball court, an empty, especially an empty ball field as this possibility. It's just, there it is, it's beckoning us, what's possible. And it hasn't changed a bit. An empty bandstand, you just think, at the Vanguard I mean it hasn't changed. I mean I got to play there quite a bit with Jackie McLean in the 90s and Slide Hampton's like a small world of trombones, Roy Hargrove's big band, recently Christian McBride's big band. Never led my own band there, I'm dying to do that. I hope so one of these days. Because I love that room. I love the sound. But still when you go and you just see that stage - MR: It's like a shrine. SD: It's a shrine and you think of all the incredible music that's happened there, and then you look at a ball field and think the same thing. It might be Fenway Park, same thing, or Doubleday Field. I look at it and just say, Wow. How many players have done it on that diamond? And some kids could go out and do something great today. I love it. It's open possibility. So I didn't really answer your question about - the only thing that would annoy me is when you sense anyone in the band is just playing for themselves. And this is a Larry Willis quote, this is great. One time we were talking it was a gig and I don't even remember who it was. But we said something like, "Yeah it wasn't working out so well." It was no one in particular. And Larry said, "Well Stevie," he said, "that's because so-and-so hasn't figured out yet that this music is not about him, it's not about her, it's not about you and it's not about me, it's about it." And he points up. And I thought oh yeah. So as long as everyone involved, their intention, Chick Corea uses that word a lot, what's your intention. And I like to say are you available musically. Are you available. You might have your eyes closed. I might be standing in front of the rhythm section with my eyes closed but my radar is on man. I'm open. I'm listening. Hopefully, usually. And try to be available. MR: You're attending to what's going on. SD: Oh yeah. MR: And how you're fitting in to the whole thing. SD: Oh yeah. That's so important to me and I think to any great jazz music that, the records we love to listen to, the recordings, the performances we enjoy so much singing. It's when - and it doesn't have to be overt or anything over the top. It's a fine line. But you can tell when it's just, oh man it's happening and everyone's in there together. It's the best. It's just an incredible feeling, either to listen to or to be a part of. It's just amazing. MR: You have some good answers. Do you know that? Okay you're a composer too. SD: Yeah. MR: And I'm going to make an attempt here, see if you can name this tune. Starts on beat 4. Oh by the way the sound, that's one of our trombone players here. I've lined up a lesson. SD: You don't say. That's great. MR: Okay here we go. Starts on beat 4. It's one of your songs. SD: Is that the melody? MR: I believe so. I'm not sure I have the pitches right. I wrote the rhythm down. SD: Wow. MR: Someone's gaze. SD: Oh "Abena's Gaze." - Where did it go? - Yeah. That's it. "Abena's Gaze." MR: I like that. It's hooky and, where did it come from? SD: Man, her, her her her spirit. You know I was tinkering with this idea actually, but then when we got together and, you know, I kind of finished the tune and knew it was just the perfect title for it. And it all just kind of coalesced. Excuse me. Yeah, Abena is incredible. Yeah. Thank you for bringing that one up. I'm very proud of that tune. I try to write compositions that are memorable, that are catchy. Horace Silver did that. I mean to me, your namesake, Thelonious Monk, I mean you remember his songs. My god. They're there for you to remember. It's not like you're baffled by them. Even though you can be, by Monk's music I suppose. But it's not nebulous or, you know, where - a lot of times I go hear a group playing in recent years and it sounds really good and they're doing interesting things and there's a lot going on and interesting unexpected twists and turns in the harmonic structure and the rhythmic structure. Sometimes the melodies aren't the strongest. But you know you hear stuff and you say wow that was interesting and the playing is great. And then you leave and I can't remember one shred of a song. I don't remember it. You know it was interesting, it was good, I could imagine picking up my horn and improvising in there and having a great time, but I don't remember the music other than this kind of overall feel. And I think a lot of jazz players, for whatever reason, have felt the need to try to outdo everything, and even outdo themselves, and everybody's become rather self-indulgent. And I can be too. I love to explore, I love to play. I do it because I love it. I'm not denying that. But I also have an awareness about playing for people. Like I said before, playing songs for people. And most people who pay their money to come and listen, they want to feel good about it. They don't want to sit there going, "What the heck are they doing?" I remember J Mac said to me once, we were playing somewhere and Jackie was a pioneer. He was an explorer. He was very uncompromising about his music you know. Even him, even with that spirit. We were playing one of his new pieces, "Rhythm of the Earth" or one of his new songs, and it was getting out there a little bit. And he leaned over to me and he said, "Yeah," he says, "son, the audience, they look like they got a bunch of question marks in a cartoon bubble over their head." He says, "Not good." He said, "Let's play the Bible song next." The Bible song is "Round Midnight." So give them something that they know. I mean Thelonious Monk, "Round Midnight," and it was, he called it "the Bible song." MR: I did not know that. SD: That's what J Mac called it. And you know, what a lesson right there. I mean it's December so we used to play, this is 25 years ago, 1992, my first December week with J Mac officially in the band. I was 24 years old still. We're playing The Vanguard. We're playing all that hard new music you know, great exciting, everyone's there. And I look back and I see the silhouettes back by the globe back there. It hasn't changed at all. And I see, man is that Ronnie Mathews? Is that John Hicks? Is that Larry Willis? All these incredible pianists that, you know, are on all the records. Louis Hayes the drummer and maybe Harold Mabern. I can't remember. It was just an incredible array of great musicians who are my heroes. And I'm just a young guy trying to be there. So we played the first few tunes and then Jackie, it's December, he just went into "The Christmas Song" chestnuts roasting - Mel Torme you know. And I thought I knew it, but then I realized I hadn't really played it very often and so he plays it in E flat, he turns to me to give me the bridge and I kind of thought about it - he just took it back. And I literally just wanted to dig a hole in the stage and disappear. And so I tell my students this one all the time because they're in the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz. So I said, "Look guys" - just last week they had to play that song as part of their semester end final. And I told them this story, I said, "Look this is the way I learned this song, it was the hard way." So you don't need to do that. And they love it. MR: He took it back. I just love that. SD: Yeah. They can connect with the history a little bit. And you know I'm doing it in my own, believe me, extremely humble way. Jackie McLean made us feel like we were there with Bud Powell when he was learning to play with him. We were there with Miles when these great musical moments were happening. And Mingus and Art Blakey. I mean he played with all of them in the 50s. And Bird. I mean he learned to play from Bird and Bud Powell. Sonny Rollins was his high school classmate. Man. If that ain't the real deal I don't know what is. So the least we can do - my dear friend and colleague Matt Reeves, the great bassist, I'm going to play with him at the university tomorrow. And you know he was one of my teachers as well. He was there with Jackie at least five years before I even got there as a student, and then became a young teacher, adjunct at first, for years. And I've been involved with that program my whole adult life. But Nat Reeves and I have been there a long time. And Rene McLean is there now. Javon Jackson became our chairperson four years ago, five years ago now I guess, four or five years ago. So he joined the program. And so many great people over the years. And we have a lot of great alumni. People like Dezron Douglas, the bassist who's playing with everybody. Jimmy Greene, the great tenor saxophonist. A young trumpeter Josh Bruneau, who is in New York. Jonathan Barber, a great young drummer. I have a trombone student, James Burdon, who is on all the big band gigs I'm doing in New York with Christian McBride and Jimmy Heath. So I could just go on and on. We have just a legion of great players who've come through the program since Jackie McLean died in 2006, and he stopped teaching in '03. It's just amazing to be a part of that. MR: I'll have to remember that for these students that occasionally are looking for schools. Check it out. SD: Yeah. We just started, we will be starting our master's program next year I believe. So we haven't had one all these years. But Javon Jackson's really helped fight for that. So we've got a new graduate program just ready to take off finally, which is really great. And yeah, I mean wow. But I can't, whenever I do an interview, Jackie McLean's name is going to come up a lot. He was just like a second musical father to me. My dad is my musical father though. He knows a lot of music man, and he really hipped me to a lot of music so, yeah. MR: Well you were in luck when you were a kid. You had your dad, and you had your boogie woogie-playing nana. SD: Nana. And my grandsir, my dad's father played some trumpet as a hobby. He was a newspaperman, a journalist you know, but he loved Duke Ellington and Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra. That was his favorite band, and the Duke, and - gave me an autographed program. Man you would love this. I wish I could show it to you. But maybe I'll send you a photo of it. MR: Okay. SD: I have a signed - God I get chills just thinking about this - I have a signed program from 1932 of Duke's band. Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Harry Carney, Juan Tisol, Tricky Sam, you know they're - Barney Bigard - they're all in there. And Duke Ellington's autograph from Boston. He was in high school and then he went to Amherst College and was on the student committee, student dance committee or something his junior year, and brought Duke Ellington - he got Duke Ellington a gig at Amherst College. MR: That's great. SD: Yeah. It's pretty amazing. So you know, and then Glen Gray the next year. So it's in both sides of my family, the love of jazz and blues. MR: Well you speak well of the music, and I like the idea of your students having a teacher who has the bandstand experience as well as the academic background. So I'm going to wish you well on your gig tonight, with a semi-pick-up situation. SD: Yeah. MR: I hope they leave some space for you. SD: Oh yeah. I'm sure they will. Mike Dubaniewicz is a really cool cat. He played with Maynard and played with my good buddy Kris Jensen, who I grew up with in Binghamton, New York, a great tenor player, not as well known as he should be in the jazz world, but anybody who knows him knows he can really play. So they played with me and Ar together. Oh I could go on and on. There's a lot of great musicians who don't - as you know - who really don't get their due or appreciated enough. But you can't do it for that. It's a way of life. And you certainly can't do it to get rich. But you do it because you love it and I wouldn't trade it for the world, being a jazz musician. I wouldn't trade it for the world. MR: All right. That's a good note to end on. SD: Yeah. Thanks, Monk. MR: Thank you very much. SD: My pleasure. MR: Appreciate it. SD: Thank you.


Music career

Davis was raised in Binghamton, New York, where he grew up with jazz music being played in the household[1](father's record collection, grandparents played). The Binghamton scene included many talented musicians including mentors Doug Beardsley and Al Hamme as well as peers Kris Jensen, Tony Kadleck, Tom Dempsey, Dena DeRose, John Hollenbeck and many others. Now divorced, he was married to the pianist Mary Di Paola-Davis many years. Their eldest son, Tony Davis, is a jazz guitarist.

He studied jazz under Dr. Jackie McLean at The Hartt School of the University of Hartford in Connecticut. While in school, Davis also gained valuable experience sitting-in and gigging on the Hartford jazz scene with Hartt professors Hotep Galeta and Nat Reeves, and with Don DePalma, Larry DiNatale and others at The 880 Club. Saxophonist Jackie McLean, founder of Hartt's African-American music program, recommended Steve to Art Blakey,[1] whose Jazz Messengers he joined at Sweet Basil in New York City in December 1989. After Blakey's death, Davis joined the Hartt faculty in 1991 (where he continues to teach today)[2] and taught at The Artist's Collective in Hartford.

Davis gained further international recognition playing in his mentor McLean's sextet (1992–97) and in Chick Corea's Origin (1997–2001). Davis has been a member of the acclaimed, New York-based cooperative sextet One for All since its inception in 1996.[3] Along with Davis, the band features Eric Alexander, Jim Rotondi, David Hazeltine, John Webber and Joe Farnsworth. Davis also currently plays with Larry Willis's Quintet, The Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Big Band/Septet, leads The Steve Davis Quintet (featuring saxophonist Mike DiRubbo)[4] and is a fixture on the New York and Hartford jazz scenes.

Davis has played and recorded with a long list of jazz greats including Freddie Hubbard and The New Jazz Composers Octet, Benny Golson's New Jazztet, Hank Jones, Cecil Payne, Horace Silver, Cedar Walton, Harold Mabern, Larry Willis, Eddie Henderson, Roy Hargrove, Avishai Cohen, Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and Michael Weiss.


As leader

  • The Moon Knows w/ Explorers (Brownstone, 1994)
  • The Jaunt (Criss Cross, 1995)
  • Dig Deep (Criss Cross, 1996)
  • Crossfire (Criss Cross, 1997)
  • New Terrain w/ Explorers (Ind, 1997)
  • Vibe Up (Criss Cross, 1998)
  • Portrait in Sound (Stretch/Concord, 2000)
  • Systems Blue (Criss Cross, 2001)
  • Meant to Be (Criss Cross, 2003)
  • Update (Criss Cross, 2006)
  • Alone Together (Mapleshade, 2007)
  • Outlook (Posi-Tone, 2008)
  • Eloquence (JLP, 2009)
  • Live at Small's (Smalls Live, 2010)
  • Images (Posi-Tone, 2010)
  • Mistaken Identity (Audio & Video Labs/MCG Jazz, 2011)
  • Gettin' It Done (Posi-Tone, 2012)
  • Say When (Smoke Sessions, 2015)
  • Think Ahead (Smoke Sessions, 2017)

As sideman

With Art Blakey

With Jackie McLean

  • Rhythm of the Earth (1992, Birdology)
  • Fire & Love (1997, Toshiba EMI/Blue Note)

With Others

  • Mode for Mabes w/ Eric Alexander (1997, Delmark)
  • Beautiful Friendship w/ Joe Farnsworth (1998, Criss Cross)
  • Osteology w/ Conrad Herwig (1998, Criss Cross)
  • Adama w/ Avishai Cohen (1998, Stretch/Concord)
  • Change w/ Chick Corea & Origin (1999, Stretch/Concord)
  • Brand New world w/ Jimmy Greene (1999, BMG)
  • Soul Journey w/ Michael Weiss (2003, Sinatra)
  • Good-Hearted People w/ David Hazeltine (2002, Criss Cross)
  • One 4-J w/ Steve Turre (2002, Telarc)
  • Spirit of the Horn w/ Slide Hampton's World of Trombones (2002, MCG Jazz)
  • American Song w/ Andy Bey (2004, Savoy)
  • Dizzy's Business w/ Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Big Band (2005, MCG)
  • Turn Up the Heath w/ Jimmy Heath Big Band (2006, Planet Arts)
  • Blue Fable w/ Larry Willis (2007, HighNote)
  • On the Real Side w/ Freddie Hubbard & New Jazz Composers Octet (2008, Hip Bop)
  • New Time, New 'Tet w/ Benny Golson (2008, Concord Jazz)
  • Return of the Lineup w/ One for All (2009, Sharp Nine)
  • I'm BeBoppin' Too w/ Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, (2009, Half Note)
  • Bringin' It w/ Christian McBride Big Band (2017, Mac Avenue Records)


  1. ^ a b Harris, Craig. "Steve Davis: Biography". Allmusic. Retrieved 2010-07-10.
  2. ^ "Faculty: The Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz". The Hartt School. Retrieved 2010-07-10.
  3. ^ Collar, Matt. "One for All | Biography & History | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 15 November 2016.
  4. ^ Orthman, David (2007-08-03). "Steve Davis Quintet at Cecil's Jazz Club". All About Jazz. Retrieved 2010-07-10.

External links

This page was last edited on 27 November 2018, at 21:52
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