In June of 1977 as Saxophonist Tony Campbell was attending his graduation ceremony from Schenley High School at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, he and his friends noticed Nathan Davis and the Pitt band practicing on the lawn. His friends dared him to ask Davis if he could sit in. Campbell did, and it changed his life.
“So I boldly walked up and asked Dr. Davis if I could play a blues in F, and he said OK. The band started, and I played everything I knew for five or 10 minutes—and they didn’t laugh,” he said.
“I didn’t know what I was doing. But Nathan was real cool and that’s where our relationship began…I still study with him today because I still have notes and all his writings he gave me. So I still study with him to this day.”
Campbell recalled that meeting 41 years later as he walked out of the June 3 memorial service for Davis at Heinz Chapel on the University of Pittsburgh Campus where he founded the Jazz Studies program in 1969 and started the annual Jazz Seminar series a year later. He said Davis’ impact as a jazz teacher, presenter and player is still being felt.
“He introduced the jazz world to the university and to Pittsburgh, and it was in another environment than the jazz clubs,” he said.
“This was academia, it was in a university setting. It wasn’t the nightclubs and the things that go along with the nightclubs, it was a more positive, cleaner environment. He got me to play with James Moody, I met Sonny Rollins. Everything I’ve done is because of Nathan.”
Davis passed away at his Florida home, April 8, at the age of 81. More than 200 people attended his memorial that featured remembrances from several current and former Pitt administrators, a video tribute that included some of his appearances on local television, and performances on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.
A trio comprised of pianist Patrice Rushen, bassist Dwayne Dolphin and drummer Winard Harper, all regular participants in the annual jazz seminars, performed several of his tunes, including one he penned for his wife, “To Ursula with Love.”
Though Davis died two months ago, for former Pittsburgh CAPA Principal Harry Clark, the loss is still fresh.
“I never wanted to see this day happen. The last thing he said to me was, ‘When I get back to town, we’ll get together.’ But God didn’t see it that way,” said Clark. “He had a heck of an impact, but the impact he made has to be passed on, so it lives forever. You’ve got to keep the interest, the commitment and the love—that’s what he instilled.”
Black Political Empowerment Project Chair Tim Stevens, then still a working musician, met Davis almost immediately after he started the jazz program at Pitt. They became friends and even collaborators.
“In 1972, I was working to get a national record deal with Atlantic, and we had a whole album of material. Nathan did all the string arrangements for me. He told me years later he thought they were among the best he’d ever done,” said Stevens.
“I’m proud to have known him. He created a jazz department when there were only two or three in the country at the time, and 50 years later it’s still here. And to bring in all those international artists to perform right over there at Carnegie Music Hall on all those Saturdays—that’s a legacy that we can all be proud of in Pittsburgh.”
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