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Teacher Makes Jazz Come Alive

Talented CSUB instructor is driving force behind success of Bakersfield Jazz Festival

by Steven Mayer
Reprinted with permission from The Bakersfield Californian.

This is the time of year Doug Davis shifts into an altered state of reality his friends refer to as "festival mode."

However, it's anything but festive.

It begins slowly each year with the phone calls to New York, Los Angeles, even Europe, and steadily gains in intensity until it peaks during the third weekend in May.

Each spring for the past 14 years, the Cal State Bakersfield professor of jazz studies has dedicated every spare ounce of his considerable energy to keeping track of the myriad details that go into planning the Bakersfield Jazz Festival. This spring is no exception.

"Right now, our living room is cluttered with cardboard boxes filled with T-shirts, promotional materials, signs and tickets," Adele Davis, the professor's wife, said as she described the months-long marathon the couple runs each year in preparation for the two-day jazz extravaganza.

"Doug really has only one tragic flaw," she said. "He just can't say no."

From coordinating promotions and soliciting local business sponsorships to signing world-class musicians to the outdoor festival, the teacher-composer-pianist has been a driving force behind the birth and gradual evolution of the festival since its inception in 1987. It's an event many credit for placing Bakersfield on the jazz world map.

"This is Bakersfield. This is a country town, not a jazz town," said local saxophonist and longtime Davis friend Paul Perez. "And yet, look at the great jazz Doug Davis has brought here.

"People don't realize when they run into him that he's going to change their lives," Perez continued. "Spend any real time with him and you will be changed. The entire community has been changed by Doug Davis."

If ever Bakersfield had a bona fide ambassador of that purely American musical form known as jazz, Davis would surely fit the bill. But his willingness to share his knowledge and passion for music with young people of all abilities also makes him a great teacher, his students say.

So, how did this Harvard-educated Tennessee native come to live in Bakersfield? And how did the home of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard capture this passionate advocate of jazz music and modern contemporary composition?

Many say Bakersfield just got lucky. Davis insists the reverse is true.

"I never looked at this as a stepping stone for something else," Davis said of his music faculty position at CSUB. "I knew it was a gift to be here--a gift for me. And it was sufficient."

"When I came to Bakersfield, the aspect of the job that allowed me to connect with other players and make music--this wondrous, spontaneous music we call jazz--was a godsend."

But it almost didn't happen.

Doug Davis as emcee

In the early 1980's when CSUB professor Jerome Kleinsasser was single-handedly screening applicants for an open music faculty position, Davis' Harvard credentials and his real-world experience in composing and performing caught his eye. But the two couldn't seem to connect by phone across the width of the continent, and Kleinsasser came close to giving up.

"I decided to try one more call to this Doug Davis person, and lo and behold, we hooked up," Kleinsasser recalled.

Davis traveled to Bakersfield to visit the campus and meet with Kleinsasser. The two had dinner together and Kleinsasser was bowled over.

"I knew in one hour this man was the answer to our prayers," Kleinsasser said. "I think history has since proven me right."

Davis grew up in Clinton, Tenn., a small town outside Knoxville. His mother was a high school teacher and a classically trained pianist. His father, a judge, personally escorted black students to formerly all-white schools when the town underwent court-ordered integration.

Though Davis received some piano training early on, the saxophone became his instrument of choice during his high school years. But when he seriously began composing music in high school and college, he came to the realization that becoming proficient on the piano was an absolute imperative.

"Someone heard me improvising on a piano during my freshman year in college," Davis said. "I was in a practice room every chance I'd get, banging around on the piano--because relatively speaking, I'd had very few years of piano growing up."

As a result of that impromptu audition, Davis was asked to compose music for a television program featuring local poets.

"I knew if I wanted to become a composer, piano was something I had to come to," he said. "In essence, to eliminate the frustration of learning the next Bach fugue or Beethoven sonata, I would blow off steam by improvising. And it would keep me in that room, keep me playing. In essence, I was creating my esthetic, but it was completely my own world."

After just 2 1/2 years at the University of Tennessee, Davis earned an undergraduate degree and was awarded a five-year fellowship to Harvard, where he continued his exploration of a wide range of musical forms and structures.

But his music education came from outside the classroom as well. Davis spent his summers in New York City where he played countless sessions with a veritable who's who of up-and-coming jazz musicians.

In 1972, the skinny, bespectacled Davis won the Paine Traveling Fellowship, which allowed him to spend eight months in Paris. There, again, a chance meeting resulted in another opportunity for the young music man.

"Someone heard me on the piano and asked me to perform for a concert," Davis recalled. "That would never happen in the United States."

Davis went back to Harvard where he earned a rare doctoral degree in composition from Harvard University--only the fourth or fifth doctorate the university had every awarded in that discipline.

Davis went on to teach music theory and music history at tiny Emory and Henry College in Virginia, where he decided teaching should be the center of his professional existence.

In time, Davis compositions would be recorded by such jazz greats as Chick Corea, Bennie Wallace and Larry Coryell. His contemporary compositions for symphonic instruments would later be performed or recorded by the Hungarian Symphony, the Knoxville Symphony and the Bakersfield Symphony orchestras.

Davis passed up other job offers before his arrival in Bakersfield in the fall of 1982. One was a position at a music conservatory in Brisbane, Australia. The other was even more exotic--and potentially dangerous.

"I had the wisdom to turn down a position in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, just before it wouldn't have been a good idea to be there," Davis said.

As he slowly came to know Bakersfield, he realized he belonged.

"When I first arrived in Bakersfield, I met up with some of the talent of the community as far as jazz playing is concerned," he recalled. "To be honest, the quality of the players here was truly extraordinary."

But the fledgling jazz department still needed a lot of work.

"When I first went to the big band rehearsal--when I first got here--there was one sax player, there were no trombones and I had three trumpets and two drummers," he said, smiling with the memory. "The first thing I did was ask where the bari (baritone) sax was because I knew I was going to have to play in the band."

Davis credits much of his knowledge of jazz and improvisation to the willingness of other players to share what they know. It's a continuing thread, he says, that relies on an unwritten but necessary law that says that the language of jazz must be handed down from individual to individual and generation to generation.

As next week's jazz festival fast approaches, Doug and Adele Davis are running that marathon again And giving back remains their primary motivation.

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