Cal State's 'Dr. J' (as in jazz)
The man from Tennessee is earning praise from every corner
by Steve Hall
Reprinted with permission from The Bakersfield Californian.
As a child, Doug Davis often lay in bed and listened to his parents play a piano duet of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."
But Davis would find rhapsody in another type of music: jazz.
He would play with the cream of the jazz crop in Paris and New York, earn a rare doctoral degree in composition from Harvard University and have such noted musicians as Chick Corea and Bennie Wallace record his compositions.
Since 1982 Davis, 36, has directed Cal State Bakersfield's jazz program. he has steadily built it to the point where its jazz coffeehouses could attract overflow audiences and the school could host two sold-out concerts by Corea earlier this year.
"He's a very rare find," said his boss, Jerome Kleinsasser, chairman of CSB's fine arts department. "We had 150 applications for his position, and not 10 of them could measure up to Doug in terms of his familiarity with jazz and straight composition and musical history. He's and impressive guy."
"In terms of his playing, his technique and his composition, Doug's a genius," said Will Roland, a jazz guitarist who played for two years with Davis in a group called Sanctuary. "Through him, I developed a lot of insight into such things as improvisation and working around abstract tonal centers. He's extraordinary."
The object of this praise is a skinny, friendly fellow with glasses who's likely to be found smoking a cigarette in a small office stacked with jazz albums, mimeographed copies of students' compositions and books on music theory.
Davis usually doesn't talk about his background, but if you get him started, the words come out in a non-stop chronological torrent.
He grew up in Clinton, Tennessee, a small town near Knoxville. his father, a judge, personally led black children to formerly all-white schools when the town underwent integration. His mother was a high school English teacher and a classically trained pianist.
Davis himself had four years of piano lessons but found himself playing saxophone in a band that specialized in tunes by James Brown, the Temptations, Wilson Pickett and other rhythm and blues.
The straight-A student, drum major and basketball and baseball player took his first step in his eventual musical direction by chance.
"Our junior class was putting on a play, 'Rebel Without a Cause,' in which I did a rather poor imitation of James Dean," he said. "I thought, 'Gee, we need music for this,' and somebody said, 'Do it.' That began my serious efforts in composition, and it's something that has never really stopped."
After a Knoxville symphony performed one of his orchestral pieces, he decided to see if he might be able to succeed as a musician.
Davis auditioned for the music program at the University of Tennessee with one of his own compositions. He fooled the faculty into thinking he knew what he was doing and then holed up in the freshman practice room with a piano for hours at a time..
Often Davis spent an hour or so just improvising, and when the faculty overheard him playing, he was asked to compose music for a television show featuring local poets.
Encouraged, he began playing with jazz musicians, including fellow student Wallace, who would go on to record seven acclaimed albums on the prestigious Blue Note jazz label.
Davis' first regular job was an after-hours stint in Knoxville at the La Crosse Club, a rough and tumble nightspot.
"One night there was a shootout in the club," Davis said. "I saw a spark go across the room, the drummer played several rim shots and the band never stopped during the great commotion."
Despite playing nightly at the club and running the jazz show on an FM classical radio station in addition to his studies, he earned his bachelor's degree in 2 1/2 years.
He then received a five-year fellowship to Harvard worth about $25,000.
At Harvard, Davis eventually hooked up with Earl Kim, "the teacher of my life," who influenced his thoughts about form, analysis and composition and became his friend.
Another friend, Wallace, wound up at Harvard, too, and he and Davis jammed for hours at a time, exploring various musical forms and structures.
"It was a wonderfully exploratory period in my jazz education," said Davis.
Wallace agreed, crediting his buddy as "my main compositional influence...I think I got more serious about modern music when I was working with Doug."
Davis spent each summer playing New York sessions with musicians who would go on to fame - an 18-year-old Mike Brecker, Jack Six (bass player with Dave Brubeck), Glen Moore (bass player with the jazz group Oregon) and the rhythm section of Larry Coryell's band.
Through his rhythm section, Coryell became interested in Davis' compositions, eventually recording "Rumination", Beggar's Chance" and "Stones."
Part of Davis' fellowship included a year of travel, and so he spent eight months in Paris, a period he considered "a great glory."
Shortly after I arrived, I was improvising at a piano and someone came up and asked if I'd like to have a concert," he said. "I said sure, and three weeks later I performed at the American Center in Paris."
That led to an offer to compose a ballet (the eventual result, "Asare," is based on a South American Indian legend) and club work with expatriate Americans Anthony Braxton and saxophonist Oliver Lake.
Davis also performed with a Congolese guitarist who had won a gold medal in a classical guitar competition at the Sorbonne. They performed in a series of shows on the French national radio station.
After these adventures, he reluctantly came back to the U.S.A. to take his doctoral exams in composition.
Up to that time, Harvard had only awarded three doctorates in composition. Davis and a classmate were the only successful doctoral candidates of his original class of 10.
After passing the exams, he headed back to New York to play lofts and clubs and sell pints of blood to get subway fare until he received a job teaching music theory and music history at Emory and Henry College in Virginia.
Davis moved away from the jazz scene, but he didn't leave composition behind.
His doctoral dissertation was "Token for Soprano and Orchestra," which he said used fragments of psalms and spiritual texts to explore "the desire to connect with God and then the fright that comes from such an encounter."
Davis gets the inspiration for such compositions, he said, "by always been writing in one's own breath.
"I will often sing a melodic line and shape it into the totality of a composition," he said. "Occasionally, I create an underpinning of bass notes and then build the melodic line or use a series of harmonic progressions to draw inspiration."
Davis would connect again with jazz when CSB professor Charles Argersinger left his post to join DePaul University and Davis became his successor.
By all accounts, the two men are 180 degrees apart musically.
"Charles was a traditional jazz player who liked bop and did a lot of pop," said Roland, who played with him. "Doug likes to deal with abstract tones, avant-garde and free playing."
Davis hopes to continue encouraging young musicians to compose. For example, a double album of students' compositions is planned for release later this year.
He'd also like to host more concerts along the lines of the Corea show - the biggest jazz event the college has undertaken to date - and generally spread awareness among Bakersfield's small but dedicated jazz community.
He couldn't be more thankful for his life, which also includes a wife and two children (one each from a previous marriage).
"I'm very lucky to have a job that reunites me with my great love of jazz," Davis said. "It's a great gift to me."