Trombonists have been part of the jazz tradition from its earliest beginnings. In the 1920s and even earlier, Dixieland groups frequently included trombonists in the front line. When small group Dixieland jazz gave way in the 1930s to big band swing, orchestras would incorporate a trombone section, and, in fact, trombonist/bandleaders such as Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and Stan Kenton emerged as major stars. Although trombonists became less utilized during the 1940s bebop era, the legendary trombonist J.J. Johnson embraced bebop and advanced the possibilities of the jazz trombone tradition.
With the emergence of cool jazz and hard bop music in the 1950s and beyond, trombonists were common in many jazz ensembles. While they have remained part of the jazz tradition, fewer have been recognized as major stars among casual music fans in the same way many saxophonists and trumpeters have been embraced. In recent years, there have been a multitude of talented trombonists who have advanced the jazz tradition and increased the visibility and popularity of trombonists as leaders. One of the most prolific and gifted of those players is bandleader and noted sideman Steve Davis, who will be leading a sextet at New York’s Smoke jazz club from October 26-29.
Davis was born in Worcester, MA, but grew up mainly in Binghamton, NY. “My dad had a lot of records including jazz, blues, and rock and roll,” Davis remembered. His grandfather played trumpet as a hobby, and, “my dad played electric bass as a hobby. My nana on my mom’s side was a real musician who played stride piano. She played semi-professionally, and she could really play.”
Like many adolescents, Davis joined the school band in the fourth grade, but trombone was not his first choice. “I signed up for saxophone in school but was sick on the first day, so I played trumpet instead. I then got braces and wanted to quit because my lips and gums would get cut. My band director suggested switching to a baritone horn because the mouthpiece wouldn’t cut my lips. Instantly, I went from the 11th trumpeter to the only baritone player, and I fell in love with the sound because it was so mellow and rich. In junior high, I made the switch to the slide trombone.” When asked about his earliest trombone influences, he listed several names but settled on “J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, and Slide Hampton. They were probably my big three.”
After high school, Davis attended the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford and studied under the guidance of famed saxophonist, Jackie McLean. (In 1970 McLean joined the Hartt School of Music. He helped found the school’s department of African-American music in 1980 and served as its first Director; the department was renamed the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz in 2000).
Learning from McLean, Davis said, “was life-changing; he had this presence, and it was awesome to be around him. He opened so many doors for me. He took me under his wing. He felt it was vital to understand the cultural history of the music. Being situated in a classical conservatory, Jackie fought for his program. He started the program on his own and built an incredible legacy and a center for music. I taught there for many years.”
What came next was a pivotal moment in Davis’ life and career. “Jackie recommended me to Art Blakey before I graduated in 1989. I wound up joining the band, and as it turned out, I was the last Jazz Messenger. I stayed from December 1989 till Art’s last gigs in December 1990. I am forever grateful for that opportunity. Blakey had a way of guiding you, and on occasion, he would talk to you if need be. One of my first nights after the first set, he put his arm around me and pulled me off to the side, and he said, ‘When you solo, make your statement, build to a climax, and get the f**k out. He said, ‘Simple, right?’ I said, ‘yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, do it then,’ and he went to the bar. What I got from that was he was teaching me not to use this opportunity to practice and work stuff out. It was a great statement; he helped me get to the point. He played with so much fire and conviction. I am just grateful that I had that opportunity. He was just pure greatness like Jackie McLean, whose band I played with after.”
Another pivotal moment came when Davis met Chick Corea. “I met him through Avishai Cohen, the Israeli bassist. He was producing Cohen’s first record, which I was on. He liked the sound of (reedist) Steve Wilson and me together. When he formed the band Origin, he used us both. After a few years, I played with him on a project called The Continents, and we recorded that with a 26-piece orchestra. Chick was always talking about communication within the band. He fostered the attitude and attention of really playing together. He was a great listener. He propelled you into playing stuff you didn’t know you had in you. I was a part of Chick’s Spanish Heart Band, and we won a Grammy for the album, Antidote (Concord Jazz: 2019). He was a complete musical inspiration. I have been fortunate to have such great mentors, and I’d like to mention Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, and Cedar Walton. Another important group that was part of my development is One For All. We played a lot and made many records.”
Between traveling worldwide and performing and recording, Davis somehow finds the time to teach two days a week at Berklee College of Music, something he enjoys very much. He is also a noted bandleader with 20 albums under his belt. His most recent recording, Bluestetic (Smoke Sessions Records), includes 10 original tracks and an impressive cast of musicians: Peter Bernstein (guitar), Steve Nelson (vibes), Geoffrey Keezer (piano), Christian McBride (bass), and Willie Jones III (drums). “Most of the songs were written during the pandemic. I’m very proud of the record. What a great band. Everybody did such a beautiful job of interpreting the record it was just a dream session. I had just gotten over Covid-19, and we had to postpone the date. I was fine to play, but I wasn’t breathing my best. The band was so good that it took the pressure off me, and all I had to do was follow Art Blakey’s advice: make a statement, build it to the climax, and get the f**k out. The music really blossomed.”
After being in Europe for the last few weeks, Steve Davis is excited to present his ensemble at Smoke. “The performance will include a real all-star sextet with good friends, colleagues, and some of my musical heroes. The front line will consist of Eddie Henderson (trumpet), Ralph Moore (tenor saxophone), Cyrus Chestnut (piano), Essiet Essiet (bass), and Lewis Nash (drums). The A team! There will be a few of my originals, but I want to play some of the classics we all grew up listening to and love. We will probably draw from some of the vintage Blue Note songs from the ’60s and the American Songbook.” Additionally, Davis is excited for the November release of Steve Davis Meets Hank Jones, Volume 1 for (Smoke Sessions Records). Jones was 90 at the time of the recording, and it is his final session.
The trombonist also wanted to ensure that people know that his wife, vocalist, Abena Koomson-Davis, Musical Director of Natalie Merchant and the Resistance Revival Chorus, completed her jazz debut recording, Where is Love?, which is scheduled for release early in 2024. Koomson-Davis is appearing on October 4 at Smoke, leading a quintet with Josh Bruneau on trumpet, Carmen Staaf on piano, Danton Boller on bass, and Willie Jones III on drums. The band will be playing standards inspired by the recordings of legendary vocalist Carmen McRae.-JAY SWEET