Pitt Jazz Seminar 50 honors Nathan Davis and Geri Allen

November 2, 2020 8:11 AM By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The seed for the Pitt Jazz Seminar didn’t begin in an office at one of the university’s buildings.

It began more organically at the historic Crawford Grill in the Hill District where Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were paying a visit to the iconic drummer’s native city, joined by former band member Nathan Davis on saxophone.

It was late September 1970, the year after Davis, a Kansas City native, came to Pittsburgh to create the university’s unique jazz studies program. He asked if Blakey would be willing to come talk to the students and that he did, during a 4 p.m. class at Stephen Foster Memorial that included a performance with an ensemble featuring Davis and Don Byas.

Davis said, according to the New Pittsburgh Courier, “The appearance of these veteran musicians was a milestone in the history of jazz education. The program’s success will certainly lead to other ventures of this kind.”

The following year Davis held the first formal Pitt Jazz Seminar, headlined by trumpeter Donald Byrd, who played on the first The Jazz Messengers album, in 1956. Over the next half-century, the seminar, the longest-running event of its kind in the country, would feature such legends as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Clark Terry, Sonny Rollins and Grover Washington, Jr.

The 2020 version, an online event due to the pandemic, will mark the 50th anniversary of the seminar by “Celebrating Dr. Nathan Davis and Geri Allen.” Allen, a pianist from Michigan, completed her master’s degree in ethnomusicology at Pitt in 1982 and returned to become the director of jazz studies in 2013 when Davis retired. She died at 60 in 2017 and Davis a year later at 81.

Allen’s successor, flutist Nicole Mitchell, has organized a week of events that will culminate in virtual concerts Friday and Saturday honoring the two jazz greats who led the Pitt department.


Among those performing Davis’ works is saxophonist Kenny Powell, who spent more than 30 years working under Davis as student and fellow faculty member.

“I first met Nathan when I was an undergraduate student at Kentucky State University,” Powell says, “and he came down and gave a little clinic, and he performed with the Jazz Ensemble, of which I was a member. I knew he had an exemplary history in terms of his performance and his work in Paris and throughout Europe. And I’m like, ‘You know, this guy’s pretty cool. He’s well versed, solid. He’s got the academic and scholarship thing going on. Plus, he’s a great player.’ ”

So, after he graduated with a degree in music education, Powell taught in Cincinnati and then in 1979 enrolled in and became part of Pitt’s ethnomusicology program, ultimately spending thousands of hours watching Davis in action.

“It was one thing that we utilized his book ‘Writings in Jazz,’ but it was his personal stories that just augmented that whole thing. He would talk to you about the bebop period, or in his case, the hardbop era, and share his personal experiences. That was the icing on the cake.”

Powell considered him to be “a hardbop player with strong roots in bebop.”

“And of course, being from Kansas City, he did a lot of scholarly work regarding Charlie Parker, so he was definitely rooted in bebop and the blues. If you read any of his background, he would play in the clubs on Saturday night, and then Sunday morning, he’d be in church with his mother or his grandmother.”

Powell admired Davis for technical proficiency not only on saxophones but clarinet and flute, and also for Davis composing a jazz opera, “Just Above my Head, as well as symphonic works.

“Nathan was an all-around musician, just solid from A to Z.”

As a performer, Davis kept some distance from the Pittsburgh music scene. You wouldn’t walk into The Balcony or Anthony’s and find Nathan Davis on the bandstand.

“I believe that Pittsburgh was, like, his comfort zone,” Powell says, “where he could come here and chill out and do his thing at the university without being, I don’t want to say, bogged down with performances, that’s not the right way I want to put it, but this is where he got his peace. But he was making trips to Paris like I go to Giant Eagle.”

Powell took part in the Jazz Seminar sets, which were recorded earlier this month at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, where the musicians had their temperatures checked, socially distanced and wore masks — unless they were horn players or singers.

They didn’t have a lot of time for multiple takes, he says, “so we just ran the tunes and did the best that we could. Everyone did their part, and we pulled it off.

“As I was going through that process, I was constantly thinking about Nathan and the things that he brought to the table. And I was trying to get somewhat in that mode of Nathan with my performance as far as his techniques and things like that.”


Pianist Irene Monteverde, a Ph.D student and faculty member in the Jazz Studies dept., will take part in the tributes for both Davis and Allen, including performing on a new piece that Mitchell has composed in memory of Allen.

Monteverde, a Pittsburgh native who wrote her master’s thesis on Errol Garner and who spent three years studying in Siena, Italy, had the honor of touring with Allen in Europe just a few weeks before the pianist died of cancer at 60. Allen invited the young pianist to travel with her, as an observer, on her tour with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava in May 2017.

“She said, ‘Listen, I know you’re interested in Italian jazz musicians. Why don’t you come along?,’” Monteverde says. “That was a dream come true, because the reason I came back to Pittsburgh was to study with her. And then, to find myself in Italy with her, it was like my life coming full circle.”

What she found in Allen, who grew up in Detroit and went on to play with such heavyweights as Ornette Coleman, Oliver Lake and Charlie Haden, was a musician who went deep into the music.

“She made it known that it was important to study those who come before you — the tradition, the lineage — and not just study on a surface level. This is a professor that, for her master’s thesis project, transcribed Eric Dolphy’s album ‘Out to Lunch’ — transcribed every single part on that album! It’s like, we usually are taught to transcribe maybe a solo here and there, but transcribing a whole album — of that stature — it sets another bar.”

She describes the piece written by Mitchell as having an opening section that’s within the blues tradition — “in the score she gave to me, there is a definite rhythmic bassline” — and a very different second part that is in 7/4 time.

She says of the recording sessions at the Guild, “It was like filming among friends. These were creators who were from Pittsburgh or who had deep roots, so the vibe was in remembrance and in honor of Dr. Davis and Professor Allen. There was no competition. It was all about celebrating these two individuals that made so many musical contributions.”


Pitt Jazz Seminar schedule at jazz.pitt.edu.

Jazz Ensemble Tribute

A prerecorded video performance of a Nathan Davis composition by members of the Pitt Jazz Ensemble, under the direction of Ralph Guzzi, will be posted on jazz.pitt.edu throughout Jazz Week.

Monday, noon

“Dr. Nathan Davis: Musician, Innovator and Educator”

Former students of Davis will share recollections in this live discussion, moderated by Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies Dr. Aaron J. Johnson. Panelists include: Dale Fielder; James Johnson Jr.; Alton Merrell; Kenneth Prouty; and Doretta Whalen.

Wednesday, 7 p.m.

“Jazz Talk” with Nicole Mitchell

“Racial Equity in Jazz and Jazz Education,” will feature panelists Gail Austin, managing director of the Kente Arts Alliance; Ayana Contreras of WBEZ in Chicago; and national arts consultant Willard Jenkins.

Thursday, 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

“Feed the Fire: A Cyber Symposium in Honor of Geri Allen”

This all-day conference in collaboration with Columbia University will bring together internationally renowned scholars and performers to discuss Allen’s legacy as an artist and educator. The event will coincide with the release of a special issue of Pitt’s journal Jazz and Culture, focusing entirely on Allen, slated to be published this fall. The final keynote presentation will feature Angela Davis, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Gina Dent. During the breaks, an extended performance video of Geri will be played. Registration is required for this event.

Friday, 7 p.m.

“Reminiscing Eminence”

International jazz artists Terri Lyne Carrington (drums) and Vijay Iyer (piano) along with Nicole Mitchell (flute) and Pittsburgh-based Dwayne Dolphin (bass) will discuss the influence of Geri Allen. Following the conversation, each will perform a pre-recorded solo as well as a collaborative piece inspired by the work of Geri Allen.

Saturday, 7 p.m.

Pitt Jazz Faculty Showcase

Pre-recorded at Pittsburgh’s Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, small ensembles of Pitt jazz faculty will perform songs, many of them composed by Nathan Davis. Musicians will include Frank Cunimondo (piano); Aaron J. Johnson (trombone); Sandra Dowe (voice); Nicole Mitchell (flute); Ralph Guzzi (trumpet); James Johnson Jr. (piano); James Johnson III (drums); Jeffrey Mangone (bass); Irene Monteverde (piano); Kenneth Powell (saxophone); Mark Strickland (guitar); and Yoko Suzuki (saxophone). Special guest appearance from Pitt Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement Kathy Humphrey (voice).

First Published November 2, 2020 8:11 AM