Steve Davis is one of a handful of young musicians who intimately understands the trajectory traced by the modern jazz trombone.
By turns hard-edged, harmonically daring, and hauntingly tender, the 'conceptions' and stylings of this thirty-four year old Binghamton, New York native hark back nostalgically to the in-the-pocket be-bop excursions of the 1950s.
In conversation about jazz and his chosen instrument, his rhapsodic musings and pithy musical wisdoms are punctuated by purposeful pauses. Davis plays the trombone in like fashion, carefully distilling the essences of J.J. Johnson, Julius Priester, Curtis Fuller and Grachan Monchur - among other important exponents - yet managing to extract his unique musical persona. This is all to evident when one listens to Steve's most recent outing on Stretch records, Portraits in Sound.
A busy musician, Davis is a trombone instructor in the Jazz Department (founded by his mentor Jackie McLean) at the Hartt School of Music, a member of Chick Corea's sextet Origin, and a leader and co-leader of his own groups and the group One For All, respectively.
This writer recently caught up with Steve at his home in West Hartford, Connecticut.
JOHN STEVENSON: Describe your early beginnings as a musician. What drew you in to jazz? Why the trombone of all instruments?
STEVE DAVIS: I've loved music as long as I can remember. My parents always enjoyed music when I was growing up. My Dad played records (mostly jazz, blues and rock 'n roll) all the time, and my Mom used to listen to the radio in the car and at home. My younger brother, (Peter) and I used to make up harmonies to popular tunes (Beatles, etc.) and come up with our own little tunes just for fun. My Nana (my Mom's mother) was a terrific pianist. She played completely by ear, most everything in C or F. But, man... she could really play! On our visits to my Grandparents in Connecticut, we'd go and listen to her restaurant gigs as she was semi-professional. Once, when I was six, I was picking out a little bass line on the piano (later, I realized it was a blues), and my Nana came running into the room, all excited, and yelled to my Mom, "Listen, listen! He made the change! Did you hear that?" She used to play and sing tunes like "Them There Eyes", "Ain't She Sweet", "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Embraceable You". I'd say she was playing in sort of a stride piano style. I picked up the trumpet in the fourth grade (my Grandsir used to play trumpet sometimes - he was a big Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong fan), switched to baritone horn from fifth to eighth grades, then played the tuba for a couple years, and eventually picked up the slide trombone so I could join the stage band/big band. It was around the ninth grade that my interest in jazz music and improvisation began to take off. My high school (in Binghamton, NY) had a great music program. Our faculty encouraged us a lot. There were several talented players in my age group - we all had a great time discovering the music together and we all took advantage of my Dad's record collection, along with a friend's father's collection. I attended a summer jazz workshop at SUNY Binghamton where Bob Brookmeyer's Sextet was in residence, including Joe Lovano. That was a great experience. I also attended the New York State Music Camp for several summers, and played in the Binghamton Youth Symphony for three years. These were invaluable learning experiences in terms of being exposed to a good deal of the classic symphonic repertoire. But, I was always pretty focused on jazz.
JOHN STEVENSON: Who were your major influences?
STEVE DAVIS: J.J. Johnson, and later Curtis Fuller were my earliest (and continue to be my greatest) influences on the trombone, although When I heard "The Sidewinder", by Lee Morgan, it was like a lightning bolt hitting me. The clarity and sound of J.J. was what captured me first. It just sounded "right"... like the trumpets, saxophones, pianists, etc. Not "slippery", or the cliche tailgate style. Early on, I also listened to Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard and Jackie McLean. Maynard Ferguson, Chuck Mangione and Bill Watrous were very popular with my peers, as well. I had one recording of (the trombonist) Carl Fontana playing "Emily" that I liked very much. My first, favorite records were, "The Sidewinder" and "Tom Cat" by Lee Morgan, "Kind of Blue" and "Walkin' " by Miles Davis, "The Cape Verdean Blues" by Horace Silver, "Ugetsu" and "Moanin' " by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, "J.J. Incorporated" and "Concepts In Blue" by J.J. Johnson, "The Jumpin' Blues" and "Homecoming" by Dexter Gordon, "My Favorite Things" , "Coltrane Plays The Blues" and "Blue Train" by John Coltrane and "Madd About Tadd" featuring Slide Hampton and Jimmy Heath.
JOHN STEVENSON: Who are your muses when you compose, and do you think there is a dearth of compositional talent among young jazz musicians? Are the younger musicians overly reliant on the standards repertoire without discovering the body of work lying within them?
STEVE DAVIS: Usually feelings that well up inside such as joy, sorrow, irony and of course, the search for beauty. A composer is constantly influenced by new things, new ideas, musical and otherwise. The feeling you get when composing a new piece is a feeling of gratification and discovery, which for me, is hard to describe. I think that musicians -- particularly composers and improvisers (spontaneous composers), and visual artists, writers, actors -- we are all drawing our creative inspiration from the same source, a source which I believe is deeply spiritual, at the core of our being. Sometimes you may think of someone as you compose, but it is an idea, or impression, a feeling that you have about a person, or a person's ideas that is inspiring you to create something, in a composer's case, through music. Creativity comes from deep inside, and is truly difficult to explain. What is the source of one's imagination, or desire to organize and express ideas, concepts and feelings? It's an intangible process. This is why I feel that art (composing, in this case) is a deeply spiritual endeavor. I would say there are many talented composers in my peer group today, and there are many more to come. But, I feel that young players today are sometimes in too much of a hurry to be "original" and haven't fully absorbed the lessons to be learned from studying, and interpreting the "Standard Repertoire". Obviously, there must be some fulfilling, artistic reason that so many of our music's Master improvisers, and composers have kept coming back to re-examine the Standards Repetoire throughout their careers. I love to compose, and will likely always write original music. But, I'm beginning to discover an inherent "freedom of expression" when playing familiar songs... songs that you've loved for many years. It's all about what you do with the song. In my estimation, a musician shouldn't have to completely re-arrange, or dismantle a Standard in order to perform a compelling version of that piece. It's all a matter of personal taste. It'll either sound good, or it won't... regardless of how much the tune is re-harmonized, re-structured, etc. It all depends on the performance.
JOHN STEVENSON: Why did you venture into music education? Why Hartt?
STEVE DAVIS: I've been teaching music in some capacity since I was eighteen. It's always been a natural thing for me to do -- sharing with others what I've learned, things that I'm working on myself. Sometimes there's a misconception about teaching; the teacher doesn't know everything. Nobody knows everything! We're all learning everyday. I look at teaching as a responsibility to continue learning yourself. I also regard teaching as "good karma". People helped me along during my basic development as a musician, and I try to help younger musicians in a similar way. I joined the faculty at The Hartt School in 1991, at the tender age of twenty-four. Jackie McLean got me the job. I felt much too young to be a fellow faculty-member with Professor McLean, and the rest of my former teachers (just three years earlier) at Hartt. But, Jackie helped me, as with many others, realize that we weren't supposed to be on that level yet. He hired us to be who we were -- young, up-and-coming musicians who, as recent graduates of the same program, could set a very real, tangible example for the students to follow and gauge themselves by example. "If these guys can graduate, go to New York for a while, and move on to some real gigs out in the world, then come back and work with us, all the while continuing to develop their playing and careers, then maybe we can do it, too!" Anyway, it has now been ten years for me at The Hartt School, and I continue to enjoy greatly my role as instructor of trombone, advanced ensembles and repertoire ensemble. We have some extraordinarily talented students/faculty at Hartt, and it is a very positive environment to function within. I owe a tremendous debt to Jackie McLean for availing me the opportunity to develop a career in the academic realm at such an early point in my life as a musician. It has provided my family and me with some stability in a profession that is very unstable. At this point, no matter how my performing/composing career continues to go, I can't ever imagine not teaching at all. It's a part of my life.
JOHN STEVENSON: As a relatively young musician who was part of the Jazz Messengers, who leads his own bands, with musicians of the renown of McLean, Corea, Payne etc, how would you assess the state of jazz?
STEVE DAVIS: There are all kinds of extremely talented and creative musicians carrying the music forward into the 21st Century. Most are doing this with a great deal of integrity and conviction. Some things change. New approaches to the music evolve. This can be very exciting or, in some cases, it can be a reflection of the inevitable negative influence of "commercialism" on any art form, i.e. "trends", or style being valued over substance. But, the fundamental elements of music will always remain the same - time and tone, rhythm and melody, polyrhythm and harmony, etc. As long as musicians continue naturally to create and explore, to study, learn from, and build upon the rich tradition that precedes them, the music will not only be fine but will thrive.
JOHN STEVENSON: Smooth jazz vs. traditional and 'straight-ahead jazz'. Any comments?
STEVE DAVIS: Duke Ellington said "There are two kinds of music... good and bad." I'm drawn to music, which allows for creativity of expression. Music which challenges the listener (as well as the musicians playing it) to think, to imagine, to feel. This doesn't mean it has to be complex. It just needs to be genuine and honest. I think that's certainly what "jazz" music is all about. I find so-called, "smooth jazz" often times, to be predictable, obvious and intentionally superficial. What little improvising there is involved is generally trite, un-original, contrived and repetitious. There may be a nice groove or a few nice chord changes... but, soon it falls into that "zombie" zone, As Johnny Griffin put it, "no think music." Of course, to each his own. Yet, it's unfortunate that the word "jazz" has been co-opted onto a label for that style of music, which is usually closer to the labels of "Soul/R&B" or "Funk", if anything. This is the most irresponsible and disturbing aspect of the so-called "Smooth Jazz" genre, given all of the momentous artistic contributions that have been made by musicians considered true jazz masters. Virtuoso players, creative giants, profound composers and improvisers, like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, to name but a few.
JOHN STEVENSON: How responsive has the jazz recording and management establishment been to young musicians such as yourself?
STEVE DAVIS: Alongside the major recording labels there are many great independent jazz recording labels out there and I have had some good experiences with this latter group. I have worked with Sharp Nine, Criss Cross, and Stretch. The larger labels are less likely to take risks with the musicians. However, though there is a lot of activity and a great amount of recording going on, we should bear in mind that jazz only constitutes 3 per cent of all record/CD sales.
JOHN STEVENSON: Jazz radio? Any thoughts?
STEVE DAVIS: I view jazz radio as being very important for the promotion of the music. That there are so many jazz radio stations around the world is a good sign. It's the most consistent and direct way of getting the music to the consumer, even though there are sometimes shortcomings in the programming and budgetary constraints.
JOHN STEVENSON: With the loss of the alternative 'jazz universities' such as the Betty Carter and Art Blakey's outfits, have new outlets sprung up to fill the void?
STEVE DAVIS: Fortunately there are still a few clubs where the music is played even though there may not be as many as there were say, in the days of nascent be-bop. There continue to be venues for the young musicians to develop. It may be difficult for some of the up and coming musicians. Many of the young musicians are fortunate to have had some of the older jazz musicians such as Horace Silver, Jackie McLean, Bennie Golson, Al Harewood, etc as guiding influences. During the last 15 years or so there has been much emphasis on younger musicians as opposed to the older ones. Though this can inject a vital element into the music and its development, it can also be quite damaging. The question of the apprenticeship of the younger musicians remains to be answered. Many of the younger musicians haven't gone through a formal apprenticeship and though individuality of expression is always prized, being grounded in the bop or be bop tradition with the masters of the art form through some kind of apprenticeship will always be to the advantage of the younger musicians.
Steve Davis' Selected Discography
As a Leader
- Portraits in Sound (Stretch)
- The Jaunt (Criss Cross)
- Dig Deep (Criss Cross)
- Vibe Up (Criss Cross)
- Crossfire (Criss Cross)
- Dig Deep (Criss Cross)
As Co-leader with One For All
- Too Soon To Tell (Sharp Nine)
With Chick Corea And Origin
- Live At The Blue Note (Stretch)
- Change (Stretch)