John Davis, the prolific Floridian drummer, has been a New York staple of Afro-Cuban Jazz, and Swing style ensembles since his relocation to the big city. There’s no miraculous story here about how music saved him, nor does he come with witty antidotes about his jazz heroes. Davis is a man who is steadfast in his purpose to do what he does best, and does naturally, and that is playing the drums. What he does know for certain is that now, is the time, for the musician to shine.

The Revivalist caught up with Davis after nearly two weeks of incessant calling, and a terrible bout of email and phone tag. He finally caught me while stopping in a shop to grab some coffee.

And without further adieu, John Davis…

What’s your journey into professional musicianship?

I’ve basically been playing for like twenty years now. I started playing in church before I knew anything about drums. I had no lessons, no anything. I picked up the drums in church. I actually didn’t have any formal lessons until I was eighteen in college, the first year of undergrad. There I actually had formal drum lessons from an actual drum teacher. Up until then I was just self-taught. I also played trumpet all throughout middle and high school. I think that helped my ear to develop to be able to hear music, not just from a rhythmic standpoint, but also from a harmonic standpoint.

What motivated you to teach yourself to play?

I actually didn’t start in jazz. I started in R&B and rock, you know? I was listening to Mary J Blige, Boys II Men, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, there was no—

He abruptly stops to put in an order with the barista at the cafe

Hi, can I have a grande ginger bread latte? (He later admits that the gingerbread latte his holiday addiction)

He resumes (with the soft accompaniment of gurgling milk steamers in the background)

—I didn’t have a particular album that spoke to me; I didn’t see a show that spoke to me. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to do music professionally until I had my audition for Manhattan School of Music for my Masters. I guess that would have been 2004. I went through a regular liberal arts college. We had a great music program, but as far as thinking “I’m going to be a professional musician at the age of six because I saw a Stevie Wonder video” or something like that, that was not my story.

But there must have been something that inspired or convinced you that dedicating yourself to the discipline of honing in this craft would be worthwhile.

I think it was really my natural ability, how easy it came to me. Not to be tooting my own horn, but I hear music a certain way. It was just easy. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do it professionally, but it was easy, and I was good at it. And I wanted to better at it. I didn’t have any kind of real push or specific thing that I was shooting for per se.

Where do you call your hometown?

Jacksonville, Florida. Actually, I was born in Louisiana, but I moved to Jacksonville, Florida when I was six. And from six until twenty-two I guess, I was in Jacksonville.

You’ve done a bit of work playing with big bands. How did that come about?

Yeah. I played with a couple of different big bands. One of the big bands that I played with was a straight-ahead big band that I was with like all four years of undergrad. When I got here [New York] I was in the Afro-Cuban jazz ensemble for 2 years of graduate school. That was awesome.

How did you initially enter the jazz world?

I got into jazz in high school. I was playing trumpet, and I was playing drums in church. I wanted to be in a jazz band because I wanted to be in a jazz band, there was no real motive or reason behind that. I wanted to play as much music as I possibly could play, and when it came time for auditions, it was between trumpet and trying out on drums, and I had something better prepared for drums, so I decided to try out for drums. I got in, and played jazz drums. I think that out of everything, it was easy and I was good at it. When I say easy and good at it, it sounds a little like I’m a prodigy, but I’m not like that at all. It felt easy and comfortable to me, which is why I ended up getting there. I was playing gospel in church, I was playing marching band music in school, I was playing contra band music in school, so I wanted do as much as I possibly could.

Who do you play with now?

What I’m doing right now? I’m actually in a couple of bands. I’m in Greg Guidry’s band. I’m a member of one of Myron Walden’s many bands, saxophone player Myron Walden. Momentum is the group that I’m in with him. Everything else is just a side project. I’ve done some stuff with Nicholas Payton, I’ve done some stuff with Marcus Strickland, I’ve done some stuff with Sean Jones, I’ve done some stuff with Eric Wood. These are a couple of names that I could think of. I’m currently just touring with those guys as much as I can.

What other forms of music do you enjoy playing?

It seems like since I’ve been here, this is the most jazz work that I’ve ever done in my life. When I was in Florida, it was all rock cover bands, jam bands. There was very very little jazz outside of school. There was jazz at jazz school, but outside of school, it was pretty much rock, cover bands, jam bands. Since I’ve been here, it seems like I’ve been going through a lot of phases. I’ve gone through phases where I’m playing Latin, I’ll do phases where I’m heavy into swing, I’ll do phases where I’m heavy into more straight away, I’ll do phases where I’m back into soul. Last year, I was in a pretty heavy swing phase. Since then I haven’t done much outside of the swing genre.

What’s your dream gig?

Projects that I want to get involved in…my dream gig is to play with Seal. That’s like the ultimate dream gig. As far as projects that I’m working to get involved in that actually might be on my horizon, I’m looking to get involved with Don Omar, the Reggaeton pop star. I’m trying to get into that situation. And I’m trying to get with Kenny Garret. So those are the two that are really on my horizon right now, but Seal is like a dream.

Can you speak on how your peers are influencing the music game?

I feel like our generation definitely has a lot to say. Every generation is trying to leave it’s mark, and trying to create something that has it’s own sound, has it’s own thing, has it’s own vibe, you know? But keep it in line with the tradition. There are a lot of great musicians, who have an unbelievably strong foundation and a tradition, but definitely are branching out to do something new and fresh. Same with some of these cats, who are strong in their tradition, but want to branch out and do something relevant to today. Because our music, it can be funny sometimes in the way that it not only glorifies the past, but sometimes get stuck in the past. And it’s nice to see guys who are taking the tradition and respecting the tradition to try to move forward.

Do you see yourself as being in a legion of young cats that are doing it big for the live musician community?

I want to be as representative as I can. It’s great that you guys [The Revivalist] are representing the musicians how they should be represented, and really respecting the guys who are playing. Sometimes in our community, guys don’t get respect. In the pop world—not even pop, but all of that—they really just glorify the artist. Sometimes they just take the musicians for granted and how incredible they are.

Interview by Boyuan Gao


6 Replies to "John Davis"
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  • R. Charlene Davis says:
    November 19, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    I’m PROUD to say that John Davis is my younger brother!!! He has CERTAINLY made his mark in music as a drummer and I hope to one day be able to collaborate with him as an artist!

    Much love!

    lethonius says:
    November 20, 2010 at 12:53 am

    I grew up with John and played with him during high school, in jazz vespers services and in a few gigs around our hometown; so I can attest that he is a genuine article…his interview is as real as it gets. He has a natural talent that everyone who he came into contact with could see. If I had a hundredth of his God-given talent, well, I don’t know what. Both he and his brother, Chris are phenomenal musicians and good men.

    Matt Branch says:
    November 20, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    I played in our high school’s jazz band with John, and I remember hearing some rhythms come from his trap that would drop your jaw… they just oozed Creativity! We all knew he’d make it. God Bless, John!

    Ebony says:
    November 23, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    Very proud of you, friend!

    Katie Davis(neice of John Davis) says:
    December 3, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    OMG ulnc I am so happy for you….keep doing what you’re doing…I love you so much

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