Charles Davis obituary
By Peter Vacher
Charles Davis said he was ‘brought up on Basie and Ellington’
The saxophonist Charles Davis, who has died aged 83, forged his bracing, bebop tenor saxophone style in Chicago’s clubs and jam sessions, but it was only when he began to specialise on the more cumbersome baritone that he found his true voice and gained wider international recognition.
It was his instrumental command and solo fluency on baritone that brought Davis several recording opportunities and led band leaders as varied as the trumpeter Clark Terry and jazz mystic Sun Ra to recruit him for their touring orchestras. It also led to Davis combining with Gary Smulyan and Ronnie Cuber in the memorable Three Baritone Saxophone Band which played Ronnie Scott’s in 1998 – my own first encounter with the majesty of his playing.
Latterly, Davis had returned to the tenor saxophone as his main instrument, fronting his own quartet and playing with the all-star Jimmy Heath big band while still taking the occasional tour with Marshall Allen’s Sun Ra Arkestra.
Davis was born in Goodman, Mississippi, during a period of marked African- American repression and unrest, to Lindsey Davis and his wife, Vernell (nee Coleman). By 1936 he had relocated with his mother to Chicago’s South Side, then the destination of choice for black southerners seeking a better life.
Initially Davis was sent away to St Benedict’s, a Catholic boarding school in Milwaukee, before entering the celebrated DuSable high school in Chicago in 1949. There he came under the eagle eye of Captain Walter Dyett, whose music instruction had been crucial in shaping the careers of many African-American musicians and entertainers including Dinah Washington and Nat Cole. Davis said he was “brought up on Basie and Ellington”, and recalled his mother taking him to see all the great black bands of the day at the city’s Regal theater, citing her enthusiasm for Louis Jordan and Lionel Hampton, while he stayed starry-eyed at the sight of the bebop pioneer Charlie Parker with Jay McShann’s band in 1942.
“I remember him playing a solo and it brought down the house,” he told me in 2008. Davis also studied formally at the Chicago School of Music for three years and received private tuition from John Hauser from 1951 onwards.
Charles Davis Quintet – For us – Jamboree, Barcelona
Having already worked with the organist Brother Jack McDuff, Davis was called by a local bandleader, Al Smith, in 1956 to back the singer Billie Holiday at Budland in Chicago, alongside the featured tenor saxophonist and former Ellington star Ben Webster. This prestigious job lasted two months, after which Davis went on the road with the New Orleans R&B singer Clarence “Frogman” Henry. As a result he gained his first glimpse of New York. “He was a protege of Fats Domino,” Davis recalled. He then spent the next two years touring and recording with Washington, then riding high, in a band stuffed with graduates of DuSable and run by the tenor saxophonist Eddie Chamblee.
It was during this time that he started collaborating with Sun Ra (formerly Sonny Blount) – he told me that they shared a common interest in bebop. He was in and out of the space man’s ensemble ever after, appearing in London with the band (now under the saxophonist Allen’s direction) and broadcasting on the BBC as recently as in June 2014.
By 1959, Davis had relocated permanently to New York, then as now the jazz musicians’ mecca, and formed an enduring association with the innovative hard-bop trumpeter Kenny Dorham, their quintets gaining lengthy residencies and recording regularly. When I asked him which musicians he missed most, it was Dorham, who died in 1972, who came to mind instantly.
In what was both a halcyon period for modern jazz in New York and for Davis personally, he began to play or record with every soloist of consequence, including John Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones and Dizzy Gillespie, while taking extended European tours with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, the Clark Terry Big Bad Band (playing London memorably in 1977) and with Abdullah Ibrahim in both Europe and Africa, and making an array of solo appearances at international festivals and clubs. He also formed many short-lived combos to play club dates in New York, one critic describing him as “getting a gurgling, darkly tinged sound” on the baritone.
“The most impressive of the handful of important new baritone saxophonists who have come to prominence during the 1960s,” according to the critic Leonard Feather, Davis won the DownBeat International Jazz Critics Poll for baritone saxophone in 1964. Jazz performance was, he said, “a way of life. You can’t fake your way through it.”
Davis is survived by the children and grandchildren from his first marriage, which ended in divorce. His second wife, Lori Davis (nee Samet), died in 2012. His final recording, issued in 2014, was named For the Love of Lori.
• Charles Davis, jazz saxophonist, composer and educator, born 20 May 1933; died 15 July 2016