Some of the biggest and brightest stars on the Jazz landscape will converge on the University of Pittsburgh campus this weekend to participate in the 42nd annual Jazz Seminar at the University of Pittsburgh.
The four-day event focuses on teaching, performing and documenting the history of Jazz. Heavyweights in the genre are asked to serve as “professors” for participants who attend the conference to learn about the lives and careers of the invited Jazz artists.
The initiative was the brainchild of Jazz musician and educator Nathan Davis who teaches Jazz at the University of Pittsburgh.
“The idea for this conference—and bringing Jazz to the University of Pittsburgh—while I was on the bandstand with Art Blakey,” said Davis, 74. “Everyone on the bandstand was happy because there weren’t too many Blacks here and they were excited that someone of their own kind was putting together a program and the Jazz musicians bent over backwards to help me.”
That was over four decades ago and the outpouring of help has not slowed down.
This year’s conference will tackle issues like how to garner support for Jazz artists, what is lacking in Jazz, and trends in the genre. Participants will also be treated to the movie, “Sweet Hearts of Rhythm,” which deals with an all-female big band in the 1940’s.
Davis hopes that the seminar brings to light some of the struggles of Jazz musicians and solutions on how to end those problems.
“This conference can only project attention to what we lack and maybe offer suggestions as to how to fix it, if that,” said drummer, Billy Cobham who will be flying in from Switzerland to teach and perform at the conference. “We must have dialogue, there is nothing wrong with talking, although it would be nice to implement some worthwhile aspects if the opportunity presented itself. I am interested in listening and taking the pulse of the forum discussion as much as verbally contributing to it. It’s nice to have been selected and I am thankful.”
According to Davis, this is Cobham’s fifth time participating in the seminar.
“He is the number one fusion drummer. I love to play with him. Every time I hear Cobham play he plays with such energy. He is a good drummer,” Davis said.
Each year, Davis goes through his arsenal of musician friends and personally invites them to participate in the seminar.
“I call and personally ask them. If they tell me to talk to their agents, then I don’t invite them. They have to want to do it,” Davis said.
In addition to Cobham, this seminar will boast teachings by Maurice Brown, Donald Harrison, Randy Brecker and Davis. The four-day event will culminate with a rare concert performed by the artists. The seminars are free to the public.
“The group that you see on stage has never played together before and probably won’t play together again. I hand-pick the musicians. When I put something together it’s fiery. This isn’t about showcasing your greatness, it’s about teaching and helping the students and we’re trying to promote Jazz. It’s a whole concept. The city embraces the event. It’s been really great and it’s been really successful. You can’t ask for anything better. It’s usually a sell out,” Davis said proudly.
Most of the great names in jazz have performed and taught at the seminar/concert. Some of the most noted artists in previous years include Grover Washington Jr., Dizzy Gillespie, Rashad Roland Kirk, and Kenny Burrell.
The model of the Pitt Jazz Seminar has reached beyond Pittsburgh. According to Davis, a program in Munich, Germany is modeled after the successful Pitt program. People in Africa and other parts of the world are also aware of the program and its success.
“This is a very important and premier program in the world, but this is a gift to the city of Pittsburgh. Jazz is far-reaching. That’s just the power of music,” Davis said.
When he isn’t choosing the line-up for the next year’s seminar or teaching classes at Pitt, Davis is making music of his own. He recently released an album on iTunes.
(For more information on Jazz Seminar at the University of Pittsburgh, call 412-624-4187.)