Considering the music environment that nourished his childhood, it’s no surprise James Davis made a career in music.
He recently released his first CD, “Angels of Refraction,” as part of the James Davis Quintet, a group of jazz musicians.
The 1997 Waxahachie High School graduate participated in band from sixth through 12th grade and is one of many family musicians.
His mother, Theresa Davis, is a piano teacher and the pianist and organist at St. Joseph Catholic Church, where she also has served as choir director.
There are other family influences, as well. His older brother, Keith, started on clarinet and also plays saxophone and bass. Keith is band director at Wheat Middle School in Cleburne, teaches the Cleburne High School jazz band and plays professionally.
Davis’ younger sister, Rebecca, played the oboe and flute while a WHS student and also sings. His younger brother, Will, plays the trombone and, although a non-music major at the University of North Texas, is a substitute trombonist for several of the university’s jazz lab bands and several Dallas-area groups.
His grandmother was a pianist in her younger days and although his father jokes that the only thing he could play was the radio, Davis said his father “really loves music” and “I could always tell that he had a good critical ear for music.”
In addition to his family influences, the WHS band program played a significant role in Davis’ musical career.
“I grew up singing in the church choir,” said Davis, who reports taking his first piano lessons from his mother. Those lessons were cut short after he found it difficult to study under one’s own mother, so Davis joined Waxahachie ISD’s band program and has played trumpet since.
“My freshman year was Bill Centera’s first year and he was able to get the jazz band as a class during the school day, which was the first time that ever happened,” said Davis, who attributes the band director with “getting the jazz program going at the high school.”
Davis and his bandmates attended jazz festivals, did performances outside of school and participated in a number of opportunities.
“(Centera) was really supportive of the jazz program,” Davis said, noting the group played at the Montreux Jazz Festival, which he describes as a “huge deal.”
“It’s very rare that a high school jazz band would get to attend such a prestigious jazz festival,” said Davis, who believes the band was invited because it placed first at the University of Texas at Arlington’s jazz festival the previous year.
“(Centera) really supported jazz band a lot and that’s kind of where my interest in jazz band began,” said Davis, noting he also played other types of music as much as he could and commenting on the number of hours he practiced and performed.
After high school, Davis went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Texas at Arlington.
“My course work at UTA was heavily music education based,” said Davis, who received his master’s degree in classical trumpet performance at UNT.
“From high school through master degree studies, I was playing jazz along with studying classical trumpet,” Davis said.
During the summer 2004, Davis and his then fianc/e graduated from UNT, married and moved to Chicago, where his wife, Caroline, a saxophonist, would begin her Ph.D. program in music cognition at Northwestern University.
“She’s a great musician and we play together quite a bit in groups,” Davis said.
“Because the jazz scene is so vibrant, so strong (in Chicago), there were so many more opportunities - compared to living in Dallas or near Dallas - to hear live jazz music,” Davis said. “I enjoy both classical and jazz quite a bit, but in the last several years I’ve gravitated to play jazz almost exclusively.”
Once in Chicago, Davis found himself meeting new musicians and collaborating.
“Through those connections and meeting people, I got freelance work playing a lot of gigs, even weddings and corporate events and things like that and also doing little creative things, such as forming my quintet and some of the other groups that I am in,” Davis said.
One group is Zing, a quintet that formed a year ago and includes two musicians - including bass player Matthew Golombisky - who moved to Chicago from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
“Caroline and I were playing with them. We would put together one gig at an art shop or coffee shop,” said Davis of the group that plays experimental jazz - its own blend of progressive and improvised jazz music - and recently did a 10-day tour on the East Coast.
Another band Davis is a member of is Tomorrow Music Orchestra, a large ensemble led by Golombisky, the creator of ears&eyes Records.
“I also play in a couple of other big bands (the Stone/Bratt Big Band and Ian Torrez Big Band),” said Davis, who described “big band” as consisting of four to five trumpets, about four trombones, five or so saxophones, a piano, a bass, drums and a guitar.
“Right now there is a pretty big scene of young jazz musicians in Chicago, creating new music. It is really exciting to be here right now,” said Davis, who said many of the big bands play repertoire big band, like Count Basie and Buddy Rich, but the two big bands he’s in perform original works.
The James Davis Quintet first started playing together informally whenever members could get together for a jam session or play at a coffee shop.
“I had a few original compositions to play and at some point I decided I wanted to eventually have a CD and eventually, hopefully, go on tour,” Davis said. “We finally felt comfortable enough to put together a recording session.”
The album features original compositions by Davis, who said he draws on the language of jazz from the last 30 years and incorporates sounds bordering on pop/rock and even drum-and-bass grooves.
The James Davis Quintet includes Davis; his wife, Caroline; pianist Sean McCluskey and bassist/composer Jeff Greene, both of whom he met in Chicago; and drummer Jon Deitemyer, a Chicago native he met while a student at UNT.
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