Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Davis, Walter (Jr.)
One of the most accomplished pianists to emerge from the bebop era, Walter Davis, Jr. earned his pedigree at an early age, having played with Charlie "Bird" Parker while still in high school. He went on to perform with many of the musicís most important masters, most notably Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Jackie McLean, and Sonny Rollins and in later years led his own impressive groups, which at times included the young Branford and Wynton Marsalis.
Davis was born in Richmond, Virginia on September 2, 1932, but moved with his parents when he was only one day old to East Orange, New Jersey, where he was raised amongst a most musical family. Davisís mother was an accomplished vocalist who sang in a chorus known as the Orange Majestic Singers and also played piano, as did her four brothers and her husband.
Davis began playing piano at a very young age and began his formal studies with Mrs. Dolores Tillary, wife of the Majestic Singers musical director Albert Tillary, eventually studying with Mr. Tillary himself. Later he studied the classics with Miss Zevia Reed, in preparation for a career as a concert pianist, but after hearing Billy Eckstineís forward looking big band at Newarkís Adam Theatre and Harlemís Apollo his interest in the European classical repertoire was replaced with a passion for the music of the nascent bebop movement.
While still a student at East Orange High School a classmate introduced Davis to Bud Powell, who took the young pianist under his wing. One of Davisís first professional jobs was with bebop vocalist Babs Gonzalezís Three Bips and a Bop group featuring both Powell and Thelonious Monk, the latter who became another important friend and mentor. Soon Davis was working with Charlie Parker at the Apollo Bar in Harlem.
A chance encounter with a teacher while was playing a club engagement with Bird in Newark resulted in the end of Davisís academic pursuits and soon he was devoting himself to music full time. In 1952 he joined Max Roachís group and the following year he made his recording debut on the drummerís album The Max Roach Quartet featuring Hank Mobley for the musician owned record label Debut that Roach had formed with bassist Charles Mingus.
Thereafter Davis worked regularly in Harlem with a host of beboppers, often with Babs Gonzalez groups featuring the likes of Sonny Rollins, Kenny Dorham, Lucky Thompson and other pioneers of the new music. In 1956 he joined Dizzy Gillespieís big band for its State Department tours of Europe and the Middle East. In í58 he returned to Europe with Donald Byrdís quintet featuring Belgian saxophonist/flutist Bobby Jaspar, Doug Watkins and Art Taylor, recording Byrdís Jazz In Paris during the groupís residency in France.
Upon returning to New York he joined longtime friend Art Blakey as a member of his Jazz Messengers, fortifying the relationship that went back to the drummerís early days with the Billy Eckstine band and would last the rest of the pianistís life.
As was the case with many other great artists, Davis made his recorded debut in 1959 as a composer with Blakey and the Messengers, waxing his composition ďSplendidĒ with the group, which also featured Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter, on the bandís Blue Note album Africaine that sadly would not be released until two decades later.
Davis's profile in the jazz community increased greatly that year through his association with Blakey, a pair of recordings for Blue Note Byrd In Hand with trumpeter Donald Byrd, and New Soil with Jackie McLean. He also made his first appearance as leader on Blue Note with Davis Cup, which featured both Byrd and McLean on a program comprised completely of the Davis's original compositions.
He also appeared on drummer Art Taylorís Taylorís Tenors for Prestige and recorded again with Blakey on the Live Paris Concert album on which he gracefully steps away from the piano for two tunes to allow his friend and mentor Bud Powell to sit in with the group.
Davis worked regularly with Blakey into 1960 when drug problems that made touring difficult forced his departure from the band. He returned to record with the group the following year, contributing two new originals to the Messengersí album Roots and Herbs, but unfortunately again his work with the group was to remain largely unknown until the album was released several years later.
The next year he recorded and performed with Betty Carter (ĎRound Midnight) and Jackie McLean (Let Freedom Ring), while also working with Philly Joe Jones and leading his own group. He was largely absent from the jazz scene for the next several years, during which times he earned a living as a tailor/clothing designer and furniture craftsman, returning in 1966 to record a pair of albums for Prestige with Teddy Edwards and Sonny Criss.
He recorded again with Criss (Portrait of Criss) in 1967 and with Archie Shepp the next year (The Way Ahead), before embarking on another hiatus from the jazz scene to study music in India. His return to New York was marked by work with both Doctor John (Mac Rebennack) and the Rolling Stones.
Returning to the world of Jazz in 1972, he recorded again with Blakey (A Childís Dance) and Shepp (Attica Blues), before joining the group of Sonny Rollins, (who himself was making a triumphant return from his famous second sabbatical from public performing), touring with the tenor titan through 1974 and appearing on his widely heralded Horn Culture album.
The following year he joined Blakey full time after missing the drummerís Backgammon record date, to which he contributed the title track and another original, ďUranus,Ē the latter of which remained in the Jazz Messenger songbook for the remainder of the bandís existence. He recorded with group featuring special guest Sonny Stitt in 1975, remaining with Blakey through 1977, when he appeared on the classic Gypsy Folk Tales album, again contributing the dateís title tune.
In 1977 Davis recorded his album Illumination for the Japanese Denon label, his second date as a leader, nearly twenty years after his first effort as such. The session, which featured Blakey making a rare appearance as a sideman, and Tony Williams sharing drum duties, began a fruitful relationship with the high quality label, that included two more albums as a leader, Abide With Meand Night Song, as well as sessions with Sonny Stitt and Archie Shepp.
The decade of the eighties found Davis receiving long overdue deserved recognition. He worked regularly as a leader and with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet and Philly Joe Jonesís group Dameronia, as well as various allstar alumni Jazz Messenger assemblages. He toured and recorded regularly as a leader for various European labels, including most notably the impressive trio date Scorpio Rising for Steeplechase.
Widely recognized at the time as the foremost interpreter of the music of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, along with Barry Harris, he appeared on various concerts paying tribute to the two piano greats, including performances at New York Cityís the Town Hall and Lincoln Center and Washington, D.C.ís Kennedy Center. In light of his many accomplishments, it is remarkable that Davisís stunning solo album In Walked Thelonious, recorded in 1989 for the independent Maple Shade label, was only his second date as a leader for an American record company.
Walter Davis, Jr. passed away June 2, 1990 in New York City. At the time of his death he was in the middle of an engagement, leading a duo at the Greenwich Village piano playerís mecca, Bradleyís.
Contributor: Russ Musto