The exceptional trombonist Steve Davis turns 50 today. For the occasion, here’s an interview I did with Steve in 1998, when I was putting together the liner notes for his Criss Cross CD, Crossfire. At the end is a brief conversation with Steve’s mentor, teacher and early employer, Jackie McLean.
TP: So you’re just turned 31. You’re from Binghamton?
SD: I was actually born in Worcester, Massachusetts, but I pretty much grew up in Binghamton, New York, from the age of 6 until 18.
TP: Music in the family?
SD: Yes. My Nana, or Grandmother on my mother’s side (I called her Nana), played piano by ear. She didn’t read any music. She was actually semi-professional. She used to do some gigs around Westchester and Connecticut actually, down in the Southbury area, Waterbury, Connecticut. She passed away when I was 19 and I had just started at Hartt; I finished a year there. She played in kind of the stride, maybe Teddy Wilson style. She really liked Oscar Peterson. She used to play “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Them There Eyes,” and sing it.
TP: And she performed?
SD: Yes. She played all types of tunes. “Embraceable You,” a lot of the great standards. She had like a hybrid sort of boogie-woogie, some of that in there. It’s funny, because I guess for her time, it was… She was of WASP heritage or whatever, and it just wasn’t really the thing for a woman to be a Jazz pianist…
TP: A Yankee woman.
SD: Yeah, exactly, a Yankee woman. It was kind of like a novelty. “Oh, Betty is going to play now,” and at parties and stuff like that. She played everything in C or F, but man, she could really play her ass off. I have some tapes that I’ve got to investigate further. She was really gifted, and I just wish she had lived a little longer, because I really could have learned a great deal from her.
TP: And she improvised.
SD: Oh, totally. She didn’t read a note.
TP: Like Eddie Higgins or Dave McKenna.
SD: Exactly. That kind of thing. I’d say she was probably, of course, compared to someone like Dave McKenna, very limited. But she really could play.
Then on my Dad’s side, my Grandsir, who is still alive, played a little trumpet. He’s a real swinger. He’s a big Ellington and Louis Armstrong fan, and Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, that’s his stuff, and a little bit of Bix he talks about. But he would always tell me about hearing Ellington on the radio. He’s from Boston, and…
TP: The Southland Ballroom.
SD: Yeah, right, and in 1932 he was at the Roxbury Latin School, and he remembers hearing the shows from the Cotton Club and all that.
My old man didn’t play. He plays a little electric bass as more like a hobby. But he is the one who really exposed me. He had tons of records, man, when I was growing up in Binghamton. He had all kinds of Blue Note, Horace Silver, a couple of Messengers records, a lot of Miles Davis, Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder which was one of the first things I heard that grabbed me, and a lot of Blues, like Muddy Waters and B.B. King, Otis Rush and people like that.
TP: So you were listening to music all the time.
SD: Yeah, it was around all the time. I was going through the usual paces of the Rolling Stones, things like that, or the Beatles…
TP: But were you playing an instrument from…
SD: I picked up the trumpet in fourth grade, and I switched to euphonium, to baritone horn, when I got braces halfway through the fifth grade.
TP: Because the embouchure was bigger?
SD: Exactly. Because I almost was going to quit. I liked music, and I was about to quit, and I was encouraged not to by my band director and my old man. That’s how I got into bass clef, and I played tuba for a while in junior high school. The trombone came around last. I was hearing these jazz records with J.J. on them and Curtis, or Bob Brookmeyer…
TP: Where were you hearing those records?
SD: My Dad. Then I was told, “Well, if you want to be in the stage band and that kind of stuff, you really should learn the slide trombone as opposed to baritone horn.” My band director in junior high taught me the correlation between the valves and the slide. It’s pretty similar once you get the same correlation. Then I just kind of took it from there. I really didn’t start taking trombone lessons until the end of tenth grade.
TP: But you had a lot of musical background.
SD: Oh yeah.
TP: And you could read music by then?
SD: Yes. Although it was quite a switch from the treble clef baritone, like, B-flat trumpet treble clef music, to all of a sudden like sousaphone ledger lines bass clef. So for a while I was playing the tuba by ear, because I couldn’t make the cosmic leap into the bottom of the bass clef. But that was good, because my ear always gravitated to the bass, and my Dad used to talk about the bass in blues bands and the bass in Rock-and-Roll and certainly in Jazz, so I had an affinity for that.
TP: What were some of the outlets for improvising and such?
SD: Well, the director of our junior high school stage band was very encouraging, as was our high school stage band director, Mr. Mann. They really encouraged us to take little solos and improvise. There was a little kind of cadre or whatever of guys that were playing. There’s a trumpeter named Tony Kadleck, who is in New York now, does a lot of sessions, big band stuff — he was a great player. So that environment was encouraged. Then at SUNY-Binghamton, there was a guy named Al Hahm(?)…
TP: Did you go there because of the Music Department?
SD: Well, I didn’t attend. I used to go to workshops and play in their jazz ensemble when I was in high school. They had summer workshops, and I think 1982 when I was maybe 15, they brought in Bob Brookmeyer one year with his sextet. I think that was in ’82, and I was maybe like 15. I had already started listening, I had the bug, and I got to hear and spend a week with Bob Brookmeyer, who had Dick Oatts and Joe Lovano and Jim McNeely and I think Nussbaum and Michael Moore. But Dick Oatts and Joe Lovano took a particular interest in me and a friend of mine named Chris Jenson, a really good tenor player. Dick Oatts, I remember vividly, said, “J.J. Johnson.” I said, “yeah, I’ve heard a couple of records.” He said, “No, man, go really listen to J.J. Johnson.” And that stuck with me. They really were very encouraging. So kind of after that I started listening to “Giant Steps” and “Kind of Blue” and henceforth.
TP: Was it apparent to you at this time that you were going to be a musician?
SD: Of some kind, yeah. My Dad’s a journalist, a newspaperman, his parents, Grandsir and his mother, were both journalists, and my mother is very literate. So it was kind of encouraged. The humanities thing for college was pretty much a given; that I was going to go someplace that was a university as well as the music. I mean, the music was never discouraged; it was always encouraged. But my parents really wanted me to have a broad education as much as possible.
TP: And you did.
SD: yes. My mother took me to audition at the music schools, Manhattan, Rutgers, New England Conservatory, and then to Hartt at the University of Hartford. She liked the campus environment. And I met Jackie McLean when I auditioned, and he really charmed my mother. I’ll never forget the audition. I played “Summertime” just by myself for him, no rhythm, and then he played the piano, and he started playing this little vamp from D-minor to E-flat-minor, and he said, “Let’s see what you do with this, son,” and he started playing these little rhythms, and I played some little response, and he said, “Yeah, you got it, man; you got all the shit happening. Come on, where’s your Mom? Let’s…” [LAUGHS] It was hilarious, man. So he talked to my mother and really made her feel at ease about coming to school and not going right to New York first, but coming up there to the campus and getting a real education, and that he would… Especially at this time in the mid-’80s, his program was really taking off, and he was there a lot and he was overseeing all the students very much. So he kind of sold my Mom on that one.
TP: And at Hartford you pursued primarily music but also other things.
SD: Yeah, a little Shakespeare. I was close to a minor in Political Science. I think I had three credits left. But mostly music. By the time I got to my junior year, all I wanted to do was play and get to New York.
TP: Talk about some of the affiliations you made at Hartt.
SD: Well, besides the faculty, which of course, Jackie just for me and for so many others of us just turned our whole world around. Especially his history course was really important. You’d take that ideally as a freshman for two semesters. He used to call it “Man and Music,” and now he got politically correct — it’s called “People and Music” or something. He goes back to Africa and makes you realize… He gets into the origins of Man, and things that we take for granted and that you don’t get educated about in public schools generally. Maybe nowadays you do moreso than 1985. Then he takes you through the whole music of slavery and field hollers, and how that evolved into the blues and brass bands and all that kind of stuff. So by the time you get up the second semester, to Charlie Parker and what he can really first-hand tell you about him, it’s pretty exciting. It really gives you a tremendous concept for the history. So that was important.
Jaki Byard was still there, and being around him was great. Hotep Galeta was just coming into his band, and he was starting to teach there, and he was a very big role model for me, as was Nat Reeves. Hotep and Nat not only taught ensembles at the school, but they used to gig a lot around Hartford. There were several little clubs. So the two of them, they might play duo in a restaurant, or they’d grab a decent drummer from the area. And Hotep started hiring me eventually to play quartet. To me that was just the thrill of my life. It was such a privilege to be on the bandstand with those guys. This is leading up to and during the Dynasty record that they made, and Rites of Passage was after that. That band with Carl Allen and Rene would rehearse sometimes at the school, and it was very exciting to see that developing. They’d go out to L.A., or go on the road to Italy, and Jackie would send a postcard. It was just my dream to ever play in that band.
Also, when I first got to Hartt, Antoine Roney was still a student there. It was his last year. And he had a huge influence on me. I mean, he taught me so much. He was the first guy… Within my first week, we borrowed somebody’s car and drove down to New York together and went and heard Joe Henderson at the Vanguard, and he took me to the Blue Note session Ted Curson was running where you’d sign the list. Ted Curson was doing it. He showed me around Harlem a little bit, showed me where Bud Powell lived and all that stuff.
TP: Well, Antoine and Wallace are soaked up in the lore.
SD: Oh yeah, big-time. So meeting and hanging out with Antoine was a big…
TP: So that must have helped you when you made the transition to New York.
SD: Oh, it did. Because he moved down there within a year or two after that, so I used to go hang with him. We used to go to Rashied Ali’s house to play a little. Jackie recommended me to Charlie Persip when I was still a student at Hartt, and my first real New York gig was in the Superband, at Visiones in 1988. There was a club in Hartford, too, called the 880 Club. Nat was in the house band of that with Donnie De Palma, a pianist. They used to bring every Thursday night, like, you name it, man…Junior Cook, Tom Harrell, I got to play with Pepper Adams there… When Eddie Henderson first came back East he was coming up there all the time, and I met him there. Kenny Garrett. A whole lot of people. So that was also really exciting, and it gave you a taste of what the real Jazz world is like.
TP: So it doesn’t seem like New York seemed particularly overwhelming to you, that you were quite well prepared arriving here.
SD: Yes and no. I mean, I was, but it was still overwhelming, trust me. When I got there… And ’89 is when I really moved to New York… I had been kind of zipping in and out quite a bit, and I got there to live, and for six months I basically went through all the money I had saved gigging around Connecticut and living cheap up there. It was scary. That’s when Jesse Davis was doing Augie’s. He had Antoine in the band, and Eric McPherson, and that’s where I met Chris McBride, Ugonna Okegwo had just moved to town, Marc Cary went there. That was an exciting time, and I used to go sit in a lot up there. But I wasn’t working that much. The gig with Art Blakey came up right at the end of ’89, and it was right on time, boy, because I was starting to scuffle.
TP: What sort of gigs were you doing?
SD: Well, not a whole lot. I was coming back to Hartford to do a lot of gigs. I was doing a couple of little club date kind of gigs, because they paid good, and I wasn’t happy about, but… A few little big bands. I was rehearsing with Charlie Persip every Thursday, and what work he had I was doing. Just trying to make jam sessions and be around. That’s what was happening.
TP: How did you get to Art?
SD: Jackie had told him about me. I never stood in the same room as the two of them, which is ironic to me, because they’re both such big mentors.
TP: Frank Lacy preceded you with Art?
TP: Was it a situation where someone suggested you go hear the band at Sweet Basil and linger around the bandstand, or were you just called to make it?
SD: No, Jackie had encouraged me… I was doing that anyway at Mikell’s and Sweet Basil for years, hearing all the different bands. But by the time it got to that, I was around a lot. I think I sat in in September of ’89, and Art knew about me. He said, “Oh, that’s you” or whatever; “bring your horn back Sunday.” I sat in on “Moanin'” or something with a bunch of other guys. Then at Christmas-time, I saw him again, and he told me, “Don’t go far.” I figured, well, okay, that must mean something. I went home literally for Christmas Day, and the next day, the 26th, I was coming back, and that’s when Jackie called me in Binghamton at my parents’ house, and said, “Steve, call Buhaina; he’s looking for you.” He gave me the number, and I called Art’s house, and he got on the phone. He said, “Well, can you make it tonight?” It was 4 in the afternoon, and I was three hours away — I said, “Sure!” It was hilarious. I left my keys in Binghamton. I didn’t have any dress clothes. I had to borrow a suit from a friend of mine. I barely made the gig on time. Frank Lacy was still on the band, too, so that was a very interesting week.
TP: A few words in general on Art Blakey’s impact on you in general musical terms, and maybe specifically on your style as a trombonist.
SD: Well, it’s hard to put into words, of course. Javon Jackson once said something that I really agree with, that I thought was great, that he had a way of showing you what to play, or how to play, without actually telling you anything. He just did it through the drums, and he guided you… One night we were in California, and Freddie Hubbard was there, and I was scared to death. We played “Minor’s Holiday” and some of the classic things. We came off the stand and he put his arm around me. He said, “Steve, listen. You make your statement, you build to a climax, and you get the fuck out. Right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Simple, right? Okay. Well, do it.”
Art taught me, as has Jackie later, from a different vantage point, how to get to the point, how to get to the fire quick, and say what you’re going to say. That’s what they say about Charlie Parker. If you listen to Curtis Fuller, he never plays more than two or three choruses. So it was such a lesson in getting to the stuff, getting to the point quick.
The other thing is just that beat. Being around Art at time of my life, I was just turning 23, and it’s like he plants a seed in you that hasn’t even blossomed, hasn’t even grown yet, and it’s going to grow as you grow. He told me one time… He was singing all these Fletcher Henderson arrangements and doing the trombone parts, and he said, “You watch, that’s going to be your style; swinging, that’s going to be your style.” I was listening to and kind of captivated by Miles and Wallace Roney, and I wanted to be that on the trombone. Not obvious, but more subtle, mysterious, maybe cold, not cold like spiritually cold, but not the kind of warm breathy sound, but more icy or something, like slick…
TP: Or abstract.
SD: Abstract. I was really thinking about that stuff, and how J.J. and Miles had a certain no-vibrato, and I really liked that. But then being around Art put things in perspective, and then I started to really listen to how Curtis took the Lester Young-Miles-J.J. influence and brought a warmth to it. I’m still trying to find the balance, actually.
TP: So you’re trying to blend the older trombone approach of the big band, pre-J.J. trombonists with the harmony and authority of J.J. and… Do you feel that Curtis Fuller kind of embodies that?
SD: Oh yeah. He’s got the tradition… You can hear it. He comes after J.J., but he was born in 1934, so certainly the Swing Era…he grew up in it. He talks about people like Jack Teagarden and the Basie Band. The thing that I love about J.J., too, is that they came from that tradition so much, that it was such a feat for them, as with Bird and Miles, to break out of that, and to start defining this new approach, and maybe more stark melodies and playing harmonically, more daring, but also precise at the same time. That’s what I really like, is Miles and J.J. and the choice of notes. Curtis was very close to Trane, obviously, when he first came to New York. He talks a lot about that, being around Coltrane and Freddie Hubbard. Obviously Trane was a huge influence on Freddie in phrasing… To me, what Curtis has done with the phrasing, just playing groupings of notes, is like saxophone stuff. J.J. certainly opened that can of worms in a lot of ways for the trombone, and certainly guys even before him did. J.J. had the prowess and the focus to really start to think that way and approach the instrument that way, but Curtis took it another step, where he’s just daring, he’s going to throw it out there, and he doesn’t care if he gets his feet muddy.
TP: Anyway, you stayed with Art Blakey a year, and he dies at the end of ’90. The what happens between that and your joining Jackie McLean?
SD: Some tough times, actually.
TP: Do trombonists have a particularly tough time in the business right now.
SD: Well, I’ve been extremely lucky. A couple of good things happened. I did play with Lionel Hampton’s band for a period, and it was great just to be around him and be a part of that legacy for a minute. But that’s a tough gig. Everybody knows that’s a dues-paying kind of gig, but I’m very glad I did it. But the thing that blew me away, though, I did two concerts with Elvin Jones. I was subbing for Wallace Roney, actually. I’d met Elvin at Art’s house about a week prior to Art’s passing. He was very nice to me (I don’t think he’d ever heard me play), and he took my number. Keiko was there. I was just thrilled to meet Elvin. It was a terrible circumstance to meet him under, because Art was kind of laying on the couch, sleeping, he wasn’t well, and Elvin was sort of watching over him. At first he didn’t even know who I was. He kind of asked if he could help me, like he was protecting Art, then I told him I was the trombonist in the band. I just never imagined, ever, that he would call, but he did, and I did a couple of concerts with him. That was a great experience, and something I would love to have an opportunity to do again.
TP: Say a few words about drum styles, and playing with drummers, and the trombone as a rhythmic instrument.
SD: I know for a fact that Art loved the trombone. He used to play a certain way, and you can hear it particularly with Curtis on all those records. I think he inherently understood… The trombone is the underdog instrument, in a way, especially… I always refer to Curtis Fuller as such a role model. He stood next to people like Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter, and transcended those limitations that the horn might present. It’s the last thing you think of when you hear Curtis playing…
TP: That there are any limitations.
SD: Whatsoever. His velocity and authority was astounding. A lot of it is just the timbre of the horn. It’s where the voice is for a male, which to me is the greatest thing about the horn. But that can get lost in the density of the music; sonically, you can lose the sound a little bit. And you’ve got more to travel. There’s more horn. You’re moving a slide with your arm and your wrist, as opposed to valves, so it’s physically more demanding to get around in terms of speed and articulation. Art had a way of goosing… He kind of prodded you and rooted for you, and gave you some stuff to play off of. It’s like riding a tidal wave. All you’ve got to do is stay on the surfboard, and all of a sudden you’re up here where you never thought you’d play.
TP: Talk about Elvin Jones a little bit in this regard.
SD: Elvin was different. Eddie Henderson warned me. He said, “Oh yeah, you’re going to play with Elvin?” He said, “Don’t try to assert the beat the same way you did with Buhaina, because it will be like stepping in quicksand.” I didn’t really figure that out well enough, I don’t think, at that time. I noticed there was a great similarity in just the sound of the drums. To me it was a similar feeling between Art and Elvin, but at the same time vastly different. Elvin didn’t play as loud as often. He could play kind of soft and sort of exposed you in a different way, which I think about all the time now. I just hope to have a chance some day to play with him again, but even if I don’t, I learned a lot just in those two hits.
TP: Then there were various little gigs here and there, that sort of thing?
SD: Yes. There’s a trumpeter named Kenny Rampton. He was Geoff Keezer’s roommate, and I used to hang at their pad in Brooklyn a lot. Kenny had a nice sextet with Sam Newsome and myself and Keezer and Dwayne Burno (Benny Green and for a while Chris McBride did some gigs) and Greg Hutchinson. We did a little like demo tape that I thought sounds pretty good actually, with a lot of Kenny’s music. So that was important for me at the time. We did Birdland and Visiones.
But there wasn’t a whole lot happening. I actually took a little part-time day job handing out flyers for Manhattan Podiatry. [LAUGHS] That’s the only day job I ever had to do.
TP: You joined Jackie when? What happened?
SD: He called and said there was going to be a potential opening back at the school, conducting the big band.
TP: You had a degree in music at this point.
SD: Yes. And I had been out of the school maybe three years. So I certainly hadn’t fashioned myself going back to Hartford so soon. But Jackie sort of indicated…
Well, one thing I’m forgetting before this is that I did meet Leon Parker in ’91, and I formed a group with him, Brad Mehldau, Ugonna Okegwo and Mark Turner on tenor. That was a huge part of my development at that point, particularly with Leon — we had gotten real tight.
Then Jackie had kind of extended this offer for teaching. Mary and I had moved to Rhode Island for a while just to kind of get our stuff together — we had gotten engaged. And Leon was living up in Rhode Island, just because he liked it. He just wanted get away from New York for a minute. We were in Westerley, and Leon was up around Newport and Providence, and we’d kind of band together. We started getting some little gigs. It was like a collective led group, but then it eventually was under my name and most of my music.
TP: So you were writing a lot at this time.
SD: Oh yes.
TP: You mentioned in the interview for One For All hearing Tony Williams’ band and being very impressed by the openness of the material. Talk a bit about the evolution of your writing.
SD: Obviously, Jackie and Hotep and Rene McLean had a huge influence on my compositional influence. As I mentioned, I was around everything. The three of them together in that band (under Jackie’s auspices) had a real sound happening, a real vibe.
TP: Let’s describe that sound. I haven’t heard any music that really sounds like those records, Rites of Passage and Dynasty.
SD: It’s really something. To me, it’s got so much in there. There’s such a recipe. There’s a lot of South African kind of influence in Rene’s and Hotep’s music, but at the same time those guys were both long-time New York cats through the ’60s and ’70s. So there’s to me a real earthy, but hip kind of thing. It’s very rhythmic. It’s hard to explain. I think the vamps and the rhythms and then the way chords move laterally kind of, then coming up with some melodies or lines over that, is real interesting to me. Like, with Jackie you might find a vamp-sounding thing… I think the goal is always to have something just a little different about it. Jackie’s music is always accessible, it’s catchy, but there’s some different stuff in there, some notes you wouldn’t expect, and little jagged edges here and there that makes it what it is — identifiable.
TP: You mentioned the ‘big room’ concept, that he may want to have it sound distinct, but he wants to really express your personality or not be too confined within that structure.
SD: Exactly. Believe me, Jackie can run some changes, and Rene can too. Like that tune “Jay Mac’s Dynasty,” that’s like some “Giant Steps” stuff, but then boom, you’re out there again. So there’s a temperament of kind of hitting you with some density, and then opening it up at the same time, so you encompass a lot.
TP: And there’s also a sort of Monkish, very specific rhythmic quality to what Jackie does, too.
SD: Yeah, and Rene… I think Rene is a tremendously important composer. He’s left-handed, and Hotep and Alan Palmer and Nat Reeves, all of them have said, “Southpaw, Rene. I forget!” He writes these wicked bass lines, and these guys are always groaning, “Oh, man, what are you doing to us?” Rene is very important to me — and Jackie, of course. They bridge the kind of outside and inside so nicely and with such integrity and honesty. Then Hotep’s writing, too, is terrific.
Anyway, if you take all that… Then I was kind of on my own after the Art Blakey-Elvin time, so I had no choice. I had to start a band, because I really wasn’t doing very much playing. Leon was sort of in the same boat, and we’re roughly the same age. It was a drastic switch, and all of a sudden Leon’s got me practicing duos where he’s just playing one little ride cymbal. Then I got into the Miles thing, and the suspended chords and what I’d mentioned about Tony Williams’ writing as one good example. I knew Brad Mehldau from Hartford, and I always liked the way you could hold a note, and he would dress it up and do some things. So we kind of got into that, and I was starting to write with all these things in mind.
TP: So you were into some very open stuff the whole way through.
SD: Yeah, I really was.
TP: So you joined Jackie, a position opened up at Hartt…
SD: Right. We were doing some stuff with that little group. We did a week at the Village Gate in early ’92, and made a demo tape that we were shopping but never got anywhere with it. I wasn’t satisfied with my own playing, but we did all my music. Anyway, it was funny, because Jackie kind of grabbed me, Mark Turner went with Delfeayo Marsalis and moved down to New Orleans, Leon was starting to get work with Tom Harrell and a whole bunch of different people, and Brad went with Josh Redman. So it just kind of went poof. But see, in retrospect, it all made perfect sense, and I got to come back and really fulfill my destiny, in a way, with Jackie, to really play in his band.
TP: It was the first time he’d really… Well, that’s not true, because all through the ’60s he was taking young players in New York and creating his sound around what they were doing with his ideas in a lot of ways, so I guess this band was an extension of that. But in New York, they weren’t his college students; they were young cats on the scene, though some were out of Juilliard or something. Let’s talk about the arc of the band musically from when you joined it through your six years playing with it.
SD: Okay. Well, Alan Palmer and Eric McPherson had come in the group about six months before, replacing Hotep and Carl, and they had done maybe one week at the Vanguard and a couple of little gigs. I remember it was somewhat of a struggle for Jackie at first; he had two very young cats, people loved that other band and everything. But as with any transition, it took a little time, and those guys learned quick. I think both of them are very special players, particularly Eric McPherson as a drummer. I mean, he’s got something going on that is very rare and unique, and I think he is going to become known as a pivotal young drummer. I have no doubt about that.
TP: All he needed to do was smooth off a rough edge or two.
SD: Sure. So anyway, that was very exciting. I always call Nat Reeves “Uncle Nat,” because he was kind of like our big brother. Especially when Rene wasn’t there, Nat kind of pulled all the rest of us up to a certain level, and particularly in the rhythm section he really pulled the other guys along and kind of helped them get it together.
We did the Rhythm of the Earth record right at the beginning. I had been in the mind like a few weeks. Jackie brought in Steve Nelson and Roy Hargrove as guests, which was smart, because I think that helped kind of smooth everything over. But then I’d say within a year after that we did a lot of touring as the front line with Rene, myself and Jackie (there was no trumpet yet) for about a year-and-a-half, in Europe, South Africa, the States. For me to become a third voice with Jackie and Rene, whereas Jackie hadn’t had another horn besides Rene for maybe twenty years before that, was such an honor. We basically played the Dynasty and Rites of Passage book, adding new things all the time, and then the Rhythm of the Earth stuff and some other things that we brought in that we never even recorded. But they already had it together. They had a sound. It sounded great without me. So I just found my own third parts.
TP: Were you investigating Grachan Moncur?
SD: Very much. Grachan, who I also know and greatly admire, he… You know the records. I once asked Jackie what he dug about Grachan, and he said, “His nerve,” which I thought was quite an answer. He liked his sparse approach, but Jackie liked that he had the nerve to try to do something that different — and he liked his writing a lot. He was a big inspiration to me to not always try to keep up, or don’t feel like you’ve got to play a million notes, and go ahead and stick some big colors out there. Go ahead, man, as long as you’ve got the ceiling.
See, being next to Jackie always made you feel special and that nobody could mess with you. You’re always scared, you’re always daunted, because he’s playing so much stuff it’s just ridiculous. But he always rooted for you. Every solo, man, you could feel him over there rooting for you. Every little thing you played meant something to him. If you crack some notes, who cares about that? “Nobody knows but you, man,” he used to say. “All my favorites, man. Lee, that was my baby; he could crack notes. Miles, K.D.” He just gave you that spirit, to go ahead and try.
TP: Now, this raises a couple of points for me. The ’70s was a great decade for the trombone, because people like Ray Anderson and George Lewis, and then people like Watrous on this other end of incredible technical capacity. But in terms of the open approach to the trombone, did you ever check out the former approach, like what George Lewis and Ray Anderson did with Anthony Braxton, taking advantage of the huge sonic possibilities.
SD: Yeah, Craig Harris, and Joseph Bowie I’ve heard a little. Sure, I’ve listened to some of that. But that was never really it for me. It was nice, but I wanted to play like Bud Powell and like… I wanted to be able to do that like Jackie, and play the lines and play the slick stuff and get up in there with those guys, with Woody Shaw — that kind of playing. Certainly Miles and Curtis do that. I know what you’re driving at… I like the spirit, but I don’t… Just as with the plunger, I love to listen to it, I love the spirit of it, and I want to get all that in my sound without literally having to do it.
TP: So you don’t want to be Tricky Sam, but you’d like to have a reference.
SD: I think you have to. How can you play the horn and not know something about Dickie Wells and Lawrence Brown and Jack Teagarden, as much as they played, and with that feeling and lyricism. I love it.
TP: A second point. You’re talking about Jackie saying it’s okay to crack a note or “no one knows but you.” I think one characteristic that’s often been noted about the generation you’re roughly involved with is almost the fear of failure as like a reason not to stretch, because they’re not going to do it right.
SD: Oh yeah. I want to get to that point where I feel totally comfortable with just playing. Actually, going out with Chick is going to be a really great experience in that regard. We did that week at the Blue Note, and they recorded it, and they’re going to put out a CD, and all of us just couldn’t believe it — like, “No, you’re not recording already; we hardly played together; my God, a live record, the music’s so hard.” Chick said, “you know, one of the liabilities you have to take in being an improvising musician is you have to accept the fact that some nights, sometimes it’s going to go nowhere — to you. It’s going to feel like this is going nowhere. So let it go nowhere. Then the next night, the next set, the next tune, you try again.” I felt there was so much wisdom in that. He’s been through it, and he’s a guy that wants to take chances. You wouldn’t necessarily lump Jackie McLean and Chick Corea together, but that’s something that I see in common, that they’re artists, they’re going to be daring, they’re going to let the work show, they’re going to let the flaws be there and make it become part of the music. And you’re absolutely right that our generation… When you hear some of these recordings from the mid and late ’60s, you just say, there’s no way we would do that in this day and age if we’re in the studio, and say it’s some up-tempo thing and the time got kind of funny, and then it just kind of disintegrates into some free-sounding stuff — everyone would stop the take and say, “No, man, this sucks; this is unacceptable.”
I think there’s a lot of good values to that, to really trying to… I think we’ve all kind of slowly but surely raised the overall level of expectations in each other, what you’re supposed to be able to do and handle. But at the same time, there’s a spirit in the process that’s maybe lacking. I think you nailed something on the head. I’m still going through trying to really play good, just play good melodies and learn how to swing and play changes well. But eventually, I’d like to move to a point where I’m not so conscious of that, and thinking about more artistic kind of things, and let it be what it’s going to be.
But right now for me, particularly with the One For All guys and some of these Criss-Cross dates, it’s been a great experience just trying to make good, solid records that are going to stand the test of time, but still you’re trying to lay it out, with no baloney.
I’ve yet to really flesh out my own original music, and especially the chance to record with Harold Mabern is a privilege right there… I keep thinking that no matter what I get to eventually, I’ll always like to play pretty melodies and try to swing too much to not do it. There’s something about it, that you like it too much to just abandon it or sacrifice it in the name of something else.
Jackie McLean on Steve Davis, 1998:
TP: What do you remember about Steve when he came to Hartt?
JM: He just came with his parents, like most students do, to go to school. That’s when he enrolled in my program, and that’s how I met him. I was very impressed with him. Mostly that I liked the background that he had in the music. He had a good concept and a good understanding of the music, and a great appreciation, plus he’s a very-very nice young man.
TP: He obviously developed a lot, because eventually he came into your band. Can you discuss his progress over the years?
JM: Well, he didn’t waste any time at school. We spent an awful lot of time together. He would come to my saxophone ensembles with his trombone and play, and he was there all the time. He was an A-student, he was great in his ensemble work, incredible in the large orchestra under Mr. Al Lepack’s(?) leadership, and he just took advantage of all the opportunities that the school offered him. Then when you link that with his natural talent, you see the result.
TP: Did you stay in touch with him between when he left Hartt and rejoined you in ’92?
JM: He never went anywhere. I got him a job immediately. He never left Hartt. The first thing I did for Steve is when Art Blakey needed a trombone player, I recommended him. But he never left Hartford, and he’s still teaching there.
TP: So you were always in touch with Steve.
JM: Yeah. From the time he walked in the door, we’ve been in touch with each other.
TP: Talk about the events that caused you to ask him to join your band.
JM: Ted, it’s very simple. When I hear somebody who plays at a particular level, and I like their concept and I like the way they write, the way Steve does… Steve writes wonderful, plays wonderful. There’s nothing other than that. Just “come on and let’s try to play some music together.”
TP: But it augmented your ensemble in a lot of ways. You were starting a new band. It was kind of a transitional time at that time?
JM: No, it just happened. He was up in Canada, and I told him to come play with me at a concert. I had our quartet, and he came and played. Then Rene and I had our quintet, and we added him to that, and he played there for a while. Then he just stayed with me all that time.
TP: He said that one of the great things he got from you that he thinks he’s brought to some of the contemporaries he’s worked with, is your idea of the “big room,” taking small cells of material, and then expanding on it. Did he always have that facility, to be very creative within the situations you present?
JM: He’s very talented in many-many ways. His ability to write music the way he does, his great feeling for harmony and colors… He’s another young great musician developing and playing very well.
TP: Was Grachan Moncur the last trombonist you worked with before Steve?
JM: Yes, he was the first trombonist after Grachan.
TP: How do you hear his playing evolving from when he began to work with the ensemble in 1992 to now?
JM: It’s very difficult to put into words how somebody grows. He’s playing better. He came to the school playing very well for a freshman, and over the four years he was there, his playing… It’s like he was always in my band, I felt like, because we were always playing together, not on the bandstand so much, but around the school, at my house, in different places. Yeah, he’s grown, just like everybody grows. He’s grown immensely. He’s a wonderful musician. He’s one of my favorite trombone players of all time, as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t matter that he’s not my contemporary. I like his sound, I like the way he writes. He’s just a very special musician.
TP: Anything else you want to say about Steve?
JM: Well, I’m just very much in love with him, and his wife, Mary, who is also very talented. His wife is a wonderful musician, great piano player, and his little boy, Anthony… He’s part of my family. I feel like he’s part of my existence. He’s magnificent and wonderful. I feel great that I’ve had this relationship with him, first as a student and now as a colleague and a compatriot in the music. Just because right now we’re not playing together so much doesn’t mean that we’re not going to play together in the future. I’m looking forward to hearing Steve more at some future time.