Internationally acclaimed jazz pianist and composer Geri Allen (MA 1982, ethnomusicology) has stepped in as Director of Pitt’s Jazz Seminar and Concert, now in its 43rd year. Allen is continuing the legacy of Professor of Music Emeritus Nathan Davis, the founder and former director of the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert, who retired this summer. In January, Allen will join the faculty of the Department of Music as an associate professor and assume leadership of the Department’s program in Jazz Studies.
Allen was one of the first to graduate from Howard University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in jazz studies. It was at Howard where she began to embrace music from all cultures and it has greatly influenced her work. She met Nathan Davis through one of her instructors who had studied under him. After graduation from Howard, while studying under Kenny Barron in New York City, Davis encouraged her to attend Pitt. She followed Davis’ advice and earned her master’s degree in ethnomusicology in 1982.
But first, let’s focus on the trailblazer himself, Nathan Davis. Although he’s well regarded for his numerous accomplishments on the Pitt campus, he is the founder of the first incarnation of the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra in the mid-1980.
Davis’ work goes beyond academic success, says Sean Jones, assistant professor of music at Duquesne University, who, like Davis, is blending a teaching and performing career. Jones is the music director for revamped PJO.
“He means a great deal to me as a young African-American,” Jones says. “He fought all the battles back then to get the music passed on the younger cats like me.” In 1969, when Davis took the position at Pitt, it was unheard of to have a person basically known as a performer teaching in the little-explored area of jazz studies, Jones says.
But there so many other accolades Davis had garnered that are not so well known. Like at the very beginning of his illustrious tenure at Pitt with the birth of the seminar and concert, as Davis was quoted in Spring 2007 issue of Pittsburgh Quarterly, “I once read in one of those European books, like an encyclopedia of jazz history or whatever, and it said something like, ‘Nathan Davis went to Pitt and put Pitt on the map by calling on his expatriate friends from Europe.’ That’s exactly what I did.
People that I knew passed the word around and we always got great artists to talk and play at our seminar. In the beginning, we were paying them no more than 500 bucks. Can you imagine that? Things have changed since then. Now I have supporters like (BNY) Mellon Bank, Dominion, Office of the Provost, The Ford Foundation, and private donors like Larry Werner who contributes on a regular basis. As a result, we have been able to expand the outreach part of our program by taking it international. We were selected by UNESCO’s International Music Council to be the first and only jazz group to celebrate International Music Day throughout the world in such places as Bahia, Brazil, Jordan (The Queen Noor Conservatory of Music), the University of Ghana, Bahrain, and elsewhere.”
Long time ally Bill Robinson, is well acquainted with Davis. “I have been associated with Jazz ay Pitt since my days as a staff member in Pitt’s Office of Urban and Community Services. Nathan Davis is an internationally-known Jazz icon. He is and was a noted author, musician, visionary and highly respected authority on Jazz.”
Robinson, a member of the Allegheny County Council, calls him the General of Jazz in acknowledge of Davis’ smooth segue from the Army Band to playing throughout Europe.
Why would Davis retire now? Keep in mind upon arriving in 1969 to establish a Jazz Studies Program at Pitt, he thought he’d give three years; it could be said Davis is well overdue.
“I had planned to retire years ago on my 70th birthday. I extended my stay in hopes that the University would be able to find a suitable successor (originally the dean and provost felt that they would hire 2-3 new people to cover the various components of the Jazz program: Jazz Seminar, The International Jazz Hall of Fame, the University of Pittsburgh Sonny Rollins Jazz Archives, the Hon. William Robinson Digital recording studio, the International Jazz Archives Journal (distributed in 20 countries). I decided that, after searching—announcing, etc. for six years, it was now time for me to make the move.”
Geri Allen, who was Davis’ first choice as his successor, has performed and collaborated with a long list of jazz greats including the Ornette Coleman Quartet, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Betty Carter, Charles Lloyd, Marcus Belgrave, and many others. Currently, she is director of the Mary Lou Williams Collective and also is touring with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding in the ACS Trio.
I feel very blessed to have been given the opportunity (43 years) to work with and serve the Faculty, staff—students and administration, at the University of Pittsburgh and the wonderful, warm, loving people of the city of Pittsburgh.”
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