In a big classroom in the Music Building, students take turns playing their solo pieces. The professor assigns each student a jazz standard. They learn the tunes and practice some exercises that help them to improvise, to dabble with the notes and stretch, or slow, or shift the sound.
Matt Hudson sits in the classroom, ready to play. It is his second year at the University of Pittsburgh. He is still taking psychology classes to appease his parents, but he really loves these improv sessions. He also loves putting what he learns into practice, experimenting with music on his Gibson guitar in the building’s tiny practice rooms.
It’s Hudson’s turn to play for the class. The professor and about a dozen other students look at him. He begins strumming, and rich jazz chords flow from his guitar. Then his fingers pick and pluck at the strings, creating a tumble of notes.
The professor, Nathan Davis, stops him. Davis is a celebrated jazz artist and one of the nation’s original jazz educators. “When you play your chords, you soar,” Davis says to Hudson. This is quite a compliment from such an accomplished jazz musician. “But when you solo, you sound like amateur night at the banjo club.”
“It was tough love,” Hudson (CAS ’03) says now, almost four years after his improv class with Davis. “There were a lot of humbling moments.” But tough love was just what the Pitt student needed to keep getting better in the elusive art of jazz.
When a young Hudson begged his parents for a guitar, they gave him one. They also made sure he took lessons. He played rock music instinctually. When a Nirvana song came on the radio, he picked up his guitar and quickly learned how to play it. Hudson mastered many radio songs and soon was playing in local bands. He was considered the best guitarist in his circle of friends in Erie, Pa.
His second guitar teacher turned Hudson onto jazz. The intellectual challenge and complexity of jazz startled Hudson. The difficulty, the history, intrigued him. The depth amazed him.
When he came to Pitt, he took psychology courses for the degree his parents really wanted him earn. They knew he loved music; he always had. But his parents were more practical: They wanted him to have a good career and couldn’t imagine what he would do with a jazz studies major. They didn’t know that Pitt’s program, one of the nation’s first, is a rigorous course of study that Davis designed to be among the best.
The improv class wasn’t the first time that Hudson felt humbled as a music major. His first week on campus, he showed up for the Pitt Jazz Ensemble auditions. In a large room, students gathered with their various instruments, ready to play their audition pieces. The ensemble gives the best student musicians an opportunity to play regularly as part of a jazz band—locally, nationally, and internationally. Hudson figured he had a good shot at getting into the ensemble. Since his midteens, he had played in bands and performed on stage.
But as he watched the auditions, another student picked up a guitar and played something that Hudson didn’t understand. The intensity, the vibe, was more than Hudson knew about jazz. I need to practice, he thought, then left the room without auditioning.
To get better, he enrolled in private jazz guitar lessons with Joe Negri, who teaches part time in Pitt’s program. Those who grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood know him as Handyman Negri, but they may not know he’s among the best jazz guitarists in the country. He has played with such musical legends as Johnny Mathis, Yo-Yo Ma, and Branford Marsalis. Hudson figured that Negri could help him make up for lost time in understanding and playing jazz.
Hudson knew, too, that Nathan Davis was a jazz master—someone who had lived the life of a jazz musician, someone who knew the music deeply, someone who could show him the way.
Davis first picked up a sax as a teenager and began playing in a Kansas City duo. He soon declared that he was leaving for Chicago to play in a band. His mother stopped him, telling him he had to finish high school. There, he discovered that, in addition to playing jazz saxophone, he liked the rigors of academic study. Not only did he finish high school, but he also earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in music, including a PhD from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
Davis also has a rich performance history. After he finished a tour of duty in the army, he stayed in Paris, where he played in clubs like Saint Germain des Pres Café—perhaps the most famed jazz club in Europe—with plenty of greats, including Kenny Clark, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, and Erroll Garner. He returned to the states in 1969 to create and lead Pitt’s Jazz Studies program.
To craft a program strong in academics and performance, Davis relied on his own experiences in both worlds, as well as the advice of trumpeter Donald Byrd and trombonist David Baker Jr. —both of whom started jazz studies programs at other universities.
In Davis’ 36 years at Pitt, he has built an enduring reputation as an educator, performer, composer, promoter, and preserver of jazz. He created, for instance, several influential programs, including the Jazz Ensemble and the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert, the longest running event of its kind in the country at 35 years and counting. The weeklong event includes free public lectures and master workshops led by top artists, culminating with a performance by jazz greats. He also established the University’s International Academy of Jazz Hall of Fame and the Sonny Rollins International Jazz Archives, which includes manuscripts, historic recordings, instruments, and personal items donated by heralded musicians. The archives also publishes the yearly International Jazz Archives Journal. The most recent addition to the music department and jazz program is the William Russell Robinson Recording Studio, which boasts the latest digital sound equipment, rivaling studios in New York and Los Angeles.
Through these and other ventures, Davis gives his students access to some of the best jazz artists in the world. Monuments in American jazz history—Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Mann, and Grover Washington Jr.—have visited campus because of Davis’ Jazz Studies Program. When well-known performers come here for a lecture or concert, they often invite students to accompany them on stage.
Contemporary artists have included Arturo Sandoval, Thelonious Monk Jr., Larry Coryell, Idris Muhammad, and Kevin Eubanks, who leads The Tonight Show with Jay Leno band.
Davis, too, is considered to be among the best contemporary jazz musicians. He has served as director of faculty for the Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and he is past director of a young artists residency program in Aspen associated with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. With Ford Foundation awards, he established jazz outreach programs in the United Arab Emirates, Ghana, Brazil, and Jordan.
Along the way, Davis has written books, made recordings, performed worldwide, and composed opera and symphony scores. It’s not surprising, then, that whenever he teaches a course about jazz history, more than 350 students sign on. Others come from beyond the region to study with him.
After Hudson’s early, humbling experiences at Pitt, he worked harder. The secretary at the Music Building soon knew him well, because he was always looking for keys to the tiny practice rooms. He’d sit on the piano bench, music spread over the keyboard, and start playing his Gibson. He’d pick one song, maybe a jazz standard like “Lonnie’s Lament,” and play it through. If his fingers stumbled on the strings, he would start over, working on the transitions, training his fingers to pluck the strings until it was natural. Often, while his fingers worked the guitar strings, he could hear others in practice rooms, running through their own songs.
In his junior year, he felt confident enough to apply for the University of Pittsburgh Mellon Jazz Scholarship, another Davis-inspired idea. The scholarship, supported by Mellon Financial Corp., will mark its 20th anniversary next year. Students use the $5,000 prize to cover jazz studies expenses, usually tuition for a semester.
On another level, the scholarship is a way for Davis and Pitt to preserve jazz. These days, says Davis, his students—unlike himself and his peers—cannot go out to clubs and perform every night to make money. Jazz clubs nationwide aren’t nearly as plentiful as they once were. But Davis’ Jazz Studies program is helping to create a new generation of musicians and fans. The scholarship rewards talented, hardworking students and shows them that the art of jazz is resilient, enduring, a national treasure.
If Hudson wanted this scholarship, he had to play well enough to impress professional jazz musicians. A panel of three jazz artists chosen by Davis judges the contest to select a student who gives the best jazz performance among all applicants. Students send a tape of several songs to the panel. Most applicants provide a recording of themselves playing solos.
Instead, Hudson formed a band with some friends. The application process broadened his development as a musician in a business sense, too. Finding other musicians, practicing together, and recording the music were all important skills for him to acquire.
With his late start as a serious jazz musician, he wasn’t sure he had the mastery to win the award. But he was anxious to know.
Almost every day, he asked the program’s secretary if she knew anything about the award. No word. Weeks passed. Then, he received a phone call. He had won. He wasn’t the guy struggling to keep up with everyone else any more. He was the 16th recipient of the jazz scholarship. Hudson was ecstatic.
After graduating in 2003 with a degree in music, he headed to Chicago. He teaches guitar lessons there, maybe 40 a week. He plays a regular gig in Wicker Park with AACM recording artist Aaron Getsug. He also performs, ad hoc, with musicians who need a guitarist.
“The way I look at it, each day, each week, each month, I keep practicing so I sound better, and I keep trying to play with people who sound better than me. The more I play in Chicago, the more I am playing with people who are touring—and, eventually, I am going to get a chance to do that,” Hudson says.
For now, he enjoys teaching guitar, sharing some of his hard-earned lessons. Although many of his students like rock music, he teaches them some jazz, too. He knows at least one of them won’t be able to resist.
The Low-Down on Dan Doan
Bass Player Wins 2005 Jazz Scholarship
At 4 years old, Dan Doan began playing violin. At 5, he was playing the piano, too. In junior high school, he tried the upright bass and found his musical calling. He has been playing the upright and electrical bass ever since. This summer, Doan won the 2005 Pitt-Mellon Jazz Scholarship, with its tuition award of $5,000. A panel of recording artists—David Baker Jr., Rufus Reid, and James Moody—selected Doan’s winning audition tape of jazz standards.
“I assigned him the Charlie Parker tune ‘Donna Lee’ in my improv class,” says Nathan Davis, professor and director of jazz studies at Pitt. “It’s very difficult, and he ate it up. That’s what impressed the judges. When they heard him playing horn lines on the bass—that blew them away.”
Doan, who studies bass with Pitt instructor Jeff Mangone, has other things on his mind besides music. He’s a junior in the premed track, with a history and philosophy of science major and a neuroscience minor. Despite his intensive studies, he finds time for his bass guitar. He’s a member of the Pitt Jazz Ensemble and has traveled abroad to perform with the group. He’s also in a fusion group with previous Pitt-Mellon Jazz Scholarship winners: guitarist Ben Geise (A&S ’05), winner in 2004; percussionist Ajinkya “Jinx” Joglekar (A&S ’05), winner in 2003; and pianist Mike Schiller (A&S ’05), winner in 2001.
Doan looks forward to medical school and life as a physician, but that’s not all.
“I want to be a great surgeon who has the time to take a break and play jazz.”
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