Mike Davison Interview [Sarah Shen]



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00:00:00 - Introduction

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Partial Transcript: Shen: So, tell me a little bit about yourself.
Davison: Myself? This is supposed to be about me?
S: And about your music background and more specifically.
D: Uh, I grew up in Wisconsin, you know where that is?
S: Yeah.
D: [laughter] I went to a conservatory, Eastman school of music. Uh, played professionally for four years, then went back and got my masters and doctorate and this is the first job I ever applied for and I got it. And I’ve been here - this is the start of my 32nd year.
S: Wow.
D: I started the jazz program here, and uh, in the process I started going to Cuba and I’ve been to Cuba 40 - I think 45 times since the mid 90s. And I was the first one to teach Cuban chorus in the United States to non-music people in the early 90s. Uhm, I do a lot of playing, my doctorate is classical music, but I was the jazz TA at the University of Wisconsin. And uh, so I do a lot of - I have my own group called The Latin Jazz messengers, you might’ve seen the posters. Uh, I play a lot of symphony work, I play with the Richmond symphony all the time, the Virginia symphony. Uh, I do a lot of work in the area all kinds of playing and I have three children: 35, 30, and 23, they all graduated from the University of Richmond.
S: Oh! Uhm, so how did you get int - you mentioned you also did a lot of classical music but how did you get into jazz specifically?
D: Well I had a really interesting household. My home, was all music. My dad had perfect pitch, could play every instrument. Mostly he played trumpet on weekends and he was my high school band director. So, we, we had all the music, all the instruments in the house and we sat around and just played - everything - so I played every instrument when I was growing up. When I was in high school, I actually sang more than I played the trumpet. I just happened to pick the trumpet probably because my dad, was his main instrument. Uh, so we listened to everything and uh, that’s the key.
If people, especially today, people want to listen to really one kind of music, all the time. So it’s hard to get them to appreciate, to understand. Because everything in music that is important that is music you can’t talk about. You have to hear and imitate, you know, sound, vibrato, style, uh, ornaments, you know you just - you just can’t talk about. So I always, I had all the music in the house and uhm, you know, my dad played the usual schlock stuff that as a child you don’t want to hear, but uh, so I uh, you know I think all instrumentalists start classical music, jazz is an acquired taste. You don’t really start off I think being a jazz musician. Uhm, some people do, but with a classical player, such as yourself, you know, it’s really good to, to be a classical player because then your life is more..you have more of a regime, it’s more regimental. And in terms of a brass player, I have to play everyday. I played everyday since about 1973. Even when I’m on long trips I go onto the parking deck in the airports and you know, I play. Just because the trumpet is that kind of instrument. So we have to have that discipline and that’s established through classical playing. Um doing your scales, and arpeggios, and all those lip slurs everyday. Then, you know, the key, I think, the uh goal of every musician is to try to be as good as your imagination. To hear everything, to hear that great player - Oh! I wish I could play like her - and our imagination is up there and we have it but you know, not many people practice enough to get to that level. So with a classical background, at least you got a fighting chance. Lots of jazz players, they get on stage and they can’t make it through the gig. They got great ideas, but with trumpet, it’ll eat you up if you’re not in shape. I played a concert Wednesday night - an hour and a half. So I have to, it’s a marathon, it’s an hour and half marathon. So how do you train? You train by running the marathon. And you have to do that, I played those tunes - not, you know, the tunes I had to play for, just like a classical piece, classical uh concert, I played those jazz pieces every day. Probably for three weeks. You know, classical - shoot man, if I’m playing a recital, I play the piece sometimes twice a day right? And uh, so, I started being - and I had no jazz in high school. I had no jazz band, I had no jazz teacher. But that’s I think some of the value in what I do is I had to figure it all out for myself.
So one of the, when I give a clinic, any instrumentalist I say, okay come in front. Here’s the saxophone player. Great. I want you to play your second line G - second line G - and I want you to play five different ways, five different G’s without asking me any questions. Can I? -whoop no questions. So, they’ll go, “ta”. And I say okay, let’s vote, we’re all gonna vote - okay, that’s one. And they’ll go “ta” - no, same sound, same attack, same everything, it’s just shorter. What should we give them? .2. Okay that’s 1.2, we’re on our way up to five! And so they don’t realize that they can do things outside the norm. So I can sing [demonstrates], I can flutter tongue [demonstrates], I can go like this with my valves, I can pull my slide out and finger things a different way. That’s how you have to discover jazz. Because in contemporary music and jazz, you always talk about the people. Hey, what’re you playing this week? I’m playing Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington. If I ask you what’re you playing, I’m playing Schubert and I’m playing Beethoven. You always talk about the composers - the jazz guys are the ones, and contemporary music, you know the Billy Joels and the Princes - that’s who they talk about because they’re different. The reason they make it is because they’re different. And not that Beethoven wasn’t different. You know, came into the classical romantic world but uh, you know my favorite composer of course is Mahler. My goodness, I could die if I played all the Mahler symphonies. So, you know, we have these uh backgrounds of music and it’s really, I mean, I used to listen to opera. I mean, wow, I would never tell my sports fans. Opera! That a four letter world uh huh. So anyway.

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Mike Davison introduces himself and his musical background. He talks about his early musical training, his discovering of jazz, and also how he came to the University of Richmond

Keywords: Classical music; Conservatory; Cuba; Jazz program

Subjects: Classical training; Developing jazz tastes; Discovering jazz; Introduction; Musical Background

00:06:55 - Jazz Band on Campus and Skill Level

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Partial Transcript: S: So, how do you think the background of the people who are in the Jazz Band, that I’m observing, play a role into how the Jazz Band functions and how they interact with each other? Because I interviewed Reuben and I know he comes from, uhm, a background where he was sort of taught, or explored jazz in high school. But, he mentioned how a lot of the people in Jazz Band don’t have that kind of a background. And so, how do you - how do you kind of cultivate that?
D: Well, you know you’ve seen a little bit of that, you know, I do what I can. Basically the rhythm players, now Reuben’s an exception, uh the rhythm players section can’t, they can’t read that well. Even though I’ve got a pretty good group - Finnegan, one of the best reading-based players I’ve ever had, he took lessons. Drummer’s a freshmen but he can still read a little music. So, when you don’t read, it’s like voice people. They just listen. And they can’t read music. But boy can they imitate, you know. [demonstrates] And they can do all that and it’s great, it’s just not a note but they can’t read because they just don’t read, they don’t do solfege, they don’t know intervals. So, I try to get those people to read. Like, I’ll say, the drummer sometimes - and not this guy, he’s really good - you know, I say if you learn how to read, you actually have to look at the music. Right?
So, that’s that part of it and the other part are the horn players, who will play a note and because they think they see it, they’re in tune. So they’ll play a note, and I’ll say, you might as well finger that second valve. What do you mean? Well, it sounds like an F sharp. Well I’m playing an F, first valve. Yeah, that’s right, but it’s so sharp you might as well finger it second valve and play an F sharp. So they, they think if it’s on the page then it’s in tune. So they, gotta get away from their eyes and have to start listening. So that’s my job.
Plus, with large cultures, you know, it’s all those other dynamics. You know, who - Tuesday night, they sounded so bad. You know when I’m saying something? And it’s midterm, they need to go home, so what do I have to do with this culture? Just get you through the tunes. Right? Cause you’re not going to play them on your own. So that changes, you know, the goals changes all the time and it really depends on the moment. I’ll tell you this really great story I heard by this really fabulous, uhm, educator. And it’s called teach to the frog. So he said he was talking to this fifth grader, so ten year olds, right? So they went out for recess, and they were playing and they saw this green frog and they got it and they held it and they talked about it and they said can we bring it inside? The teacher said okay so they brought it in, put it in a container inside. And he had his whole lesson plans planned out. Every five minutes, you know, that’s what you have to do now when you teach public school. Every five minutes, this is the goal, this is the objective, this is the SOL. Well he - he couldn’t get anything done. So, you know, because all the kids were looking at the frog. So he taught his whole lesson plans - math, science - around the frog. So every situation, you have to really look at it at that moment. I mean I have my ideas, I wanna - I wanna make sure we can do the right tempo at blah, blah, blah. But when I get in there, it just depends. So uh, so, so that’s the big thing. That instrumentalists can read and play technically but they can’t get off the page and the rhythm section players can hear but they can’t read the music so my job is to blend them together, so.

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Davison talks about the different musical backgrounds of Jazz Band members and how this impacts interactions. Furthermore, he describes the issues that arise with these diverse backgrounds and how those issues factor into band rehearsal.

Keywords: Background training; Imitate; Jazz Band; Music; Music lessons; Read; Solfege

Subjects: Adapting to diverse training; Different skill levels; Formal musical training in theory and solfege; Jazz Band member's musical backgrounds

00:10:50 - History of Jazz on Campus

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Partial Transcript: S: Can you tell me a little bit more about the history of jazz on campus and uhm, you mentioned how you started the jazz groups on campus, and how they’ve evolved since - to present day.
D: Yes, uhm, I don’t want to say it’s you know, when I was a kid, things were, you know, much more, I had to walk uphill to grandma’s house both ways. But things were different. And it’s not good or bad, different. When I got here, I had ten trumpet students studying with me. And I had a big band full of horns, full of people. I had to audition and cut. Now I take almost anybody who can come in. So, it might be the tuition, it might be the visibility, it might be the ranking of the school, people come in and they have a different idea about music. Uh, they don’t - not as many people define themselves as musicians. Like what’s your major?
S: I’m a music major.
D: Great! Yeah and it takes, I was talking to a combo, subbing for Esleck right before I came up here. And I said you know you’re playing, you have to take chances. He’s improvising. Here’s Albert, I love Albert, I said, Albert you’re a nice guy, you’ll never hurt anybody, you know, you let everybody else talk, but now you have to take risks and it’s hard because you don’t do that in your life. People come in here and they become a business major. I taught trumpet player, was a business major and a music minor. He’s out in LA, he’s playing, he’s producing, he couldn’t be a music major. Because cost too much and to come to Richmond you need to learn about money. So, counselors, schools, ranking, uh, type of student maybe. The students I get are some of the best I’ve ever had, but I just don’t get quantity. And I need a big band - I haven’t had four trombones in the big band in probably eight, nine years. I have two this year and it’s just luck. So the numbers that people come in has changed and again I don’t know, if we could figure it out we’d change it. But it has to do with a lot of different, different factors.

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Davison talks about the history of jazz at the University of Richmond. Furthermore, he describes how membership in jazz ensembles have decreased over time and how lack of risk taking might factor into this decrease

Keywords: History; Improvising; Jazz; On campus; Quantity

Subjects: History of Jazz on campus; Membership fluctuation; Music majors and minors; Taking risks

00:13:05 - Impact of Jazz on Campus

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Partial Transcript: S: So how do you think the impact of jazz, maybe like ten years ago on campus, when jazz was more popular and you had more people coming to play jazz, how do you think the impact on campus as a whole is compared to the impact it has now or the presence of jazz on campus now?
D: Well I think it’s always been where people just don’t know we even have a music program. You know we’ve talked about it a lot that the people who do tours, don’t show anybody this building. So it’s all, it’s kind of an internal thing, which has always been like that, you know, and it’s a combination - it’s not that they don’t want to, they don’t have the time, maybe people are telling them where they should go. You know they gotta go to the dining hall, stuff like that so. So it’s always been kind of underground but when people find out about it, it’s amazing. And you don’t come from the place but, most people get here and their counselors, and their parents, and their friends say, I don’t know if you should play your instrument and Richmond because it’s really a tough school. And the people who play their instruments, by the time they’re a senior here, they thank god every day. Because they get away from their bio lab and they come over and they play. So it’s, it’s a hard nut to crack, I don’t know, I’ll probably be here another - I mean I’m 61 - I’ll be here another six, seven, eight, nine, ten years. Uh, I just don’t know if uh, because it takes an internal uh thing. And it really takes a lot of media attention, it takes a lot of web presence and - so we’ve been trying to get all that, you know. Because, you know, our website is too linear, it’s not sensational you know, and really people your age need to come and have an extraordinary experience. Why else would you come to college? So if you’re gonna have an extraordinary experience you gotta find that out through the web. So there’s all that thing too and we did play more, I mean the president uh - gosh, I’ve been through five or six presidents - but we used to play at the president’s house freshmen orientation and all of a sudden we stopped doing that. They said no, you can’t come back, students can’t get into the dorm that early and we can’t - so that fell by the wayside, so. So things have changed it’s not one thing, but it’s a lot of different things.

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Davison talks about the impact of jazz on campus in the past compared to present day. He talks about awareness issues and how the University does not spread awareness about the music programs on campus. Furthermore, the amount of musical performances from the jazz groups have decreased over time.

Keywords: Impact; Influence; Music program; Presence

Subjects: Awareness of jazz on campus; Participation trends; Presence of jazz on campus

00:15:35 - Jazz in a Predominantly Classical Department

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Partial Transcript: S: I know I interviewed Finnegan last Friday, and he mentioned how he took music classes here because he was thinking about doing a music minor, and he mentioned how he felt like the department was too focused on the classical side of music rather than what he was interested in which was rock and jazz. So how do you feel, uhm, that dynamic kind of plays in the music department.
D: Well it’s that way at every college unless if you’re at like Berklee which has no large ensemble and they can do whatever they want, you know, and students only stay there for a year, just to get - you know, they say they went to Berklee. Uhm, so it’s tough because the faculty teach the way there were taught and most of the faculty don’t understand rock, jazz, and commercial music. So it takes, uh, a long time to do that. It takes - it’s not evolutionary, it’s revolutionary. There has to be a split, like, it’s like why are we having cars now that have good gas? Well our economy tanked. If our economy stayed the same we would still be driving those boats with eight miles per hour, uh, eight miles to gallon.
So, uhm, there is a few, like the guy, the lead singer for the group, uh, they had a number one hit - Lumineers. He went to school here. He wasn’t in any group, he took from Charles Arthur, took guitar from Charles Arthur, who is a gigging maniac in town. That’s what he does, he plays mandolin, violin, bass, uh guitar, piano and he just gigs. He was well versed to teach this kid, but that was really the only thing he could do, so. So there’s not much. I’m hoping - Charles did teach a course in, you know, rock and we’ve been talking about that. So Finnegan, with that said, he would do himself a big favor if he’d take a lot of theory, cause boy would he know more. But, you know, it could be a little bit of a cop out, you know, I’m just saying, I’m just throwing it out there, that uhm, you know, if you really dig in that would help his jazz and rock playing. Maybe not history of, you know, baroque, but there are some pockets where he could, uh, excel. But most campuses are like that.
S: Yeah.
D: I mean most people don’t even know jazz is an American art form, it’s like really? I would say that to my, I’m teaching an FYS class. Uh, one thing I did too was I - this show, I write this show every year called the Cuban Spectacular. And uh, I think this was the first year we did it, 2005, and it was kind of a smosh you know, a few people and, so now it’s turned into, I think, one of the most significant shows on campus. It doesn’t cost anything, you need tickets though. And it’s sold out, it’s sold out for the last eight nine years, sells out. It’s because it’s the show, it’s - I use videos and I tell the dancer that they need to have nice shoes and you know, I get the whole deal. But that’s the big band and the combo plays there on that show so that’s something that we do different here, that’s different than any other college.
And it’s really - my research is about the blending of American jazz, so the phrasing, the instrumentation, the harmonies, and the uh, improvisation of American jazz blends with Cuban rhythms. Or jazz on the top, Cuban on the bottom. So what that means, we can do anything in the show. We can play Ellington, yeah that swing! And here’s some mambo, that’s Cuban! And you hear salsa, that blends them together and they can do whatever they want. And so, my - and I got a list of about fifty tunes that you might know, that have Cuban rhythms in them. I mean Celine Dion, last year, tell ya - tell your lover about you know, I forgot - tell your mother about your lover or something like that. It’s in Cuban clave [demonstrates]. That’s a Cuban rhythm. The bass drums in our rock n roll is that rhythm [demonstrates]. All the fifties [demonstrates], that’s Cuban, that’s Cuban rhythms. So, that’s how I sort of made a little niche for this place that I think that people would enjoy. Rather than, you know, we do a concert, yeah we’re gonna highlight a couple artists. Be a lot easier for me, I’ve been writing it al year and i’ve been using the same themes now but there’s always different music and different stuff so.
We do what we can, you know, I mean I have success stories all over I try to take the students, I got two - two freshmen minor trumpeters and they’re fantastic, this year. But it takes so long because it’s so expensive and it’s a certain kind of place. The band here, is probably, their high school band might be better. The orchestra? Same way. Jazz band? Well maybe it’s a little different twist. But it’s tough to bring those students here. I mean, you probably have a good relationship because solo piano is solo piano. It’s all about your teacher and the literature. Uh, trumpet playing is a little bit about the teacher but it’s what else can they do? What other groups do they have to play in? So, so we - we, you know, we call them and I spend so much time, “yeah, oh yeah, gotta come here.” “I don’t know, went down to TCU in Texas and man, they’ve got a big football team.” You know, I mean, there’s just all these things happening, so and I get it, you know. I mean I can just go [demonstrates sounds] you know, and you can see the world, and uh. So it is what it is.
I think the most important thing I’ve done in the 31 years is I kind of get the student. So you got some students that you just move along, like maybe you’ll be a successful pianist, that’s cool. Other people come in and Richard will go, “Oh, that’s a middle C is right here.” You know, it’s not up there and you just try to help them along. I have some people taking trumpet lessons who, they bring in their Jazz Band music and we help them with their Jazz Band music because that’s the level they’re at. Now these girls that are playing, and they’re minors, man, they’re way above that. So, you know, wherever they are, you know, you can take them. I hope, at this place - then you have the whole swarth of people who are just kind of getting the credit, you know. You know, I had the concert on Wednesday, I had this one girl in the back row, I love her, Maggie, she’s in my roadmap class; Maggie asked a question, “Okay! How long’s it gonna be?” You know, that makes you feel real bad, you know, it’s - and she doesn’t mean it but it’s like, “How long do I have to sit there? How long is the concert?” I always say, “Maggie you need to live in the moment. When you go to the concert, you just need to try to enjoy it and not think about the future.” And [laughter], I’m really being serious. But, you know, I joke about it, so it’s all about - I went over form last class. Hoh, so I start off with Somewhere Over the Rainbow. AABA, 32 bars song form, probably the most perfect song ever written cause it’s scale [demonstrates]. It’s a scale, it’s a major scale, that’s why people love it. So, I played it through, one guy in the back row, yeah his name is Dauvey, play trumpet a long time. He goes, “well what I hear is A, A prime, maybe then B and then maybe A prime a little.” And the people in the front row went nuts. They think it’s math. I said, you know it’s been proven, you have four year olds, you bring them in and you say, “Hi Josh. Hi Salley. We’re gonna play some music, I want you to move your body to the music and when they change sections, I want you to move another part of your body.” They can do it. They’re going like this, they go [demonstrates]. You know, they’re having fun. But all of a sudden we get into the college level and it’s like, hoh! My god! I can’t do that, you know. So my job - and then I just take’m through one of the last jazz messengers tunes. They hear it, I map it out, and I say, “See? It’s easy.”
It’s all the same in jazz. There might be an intro, then there’s the melody, the form of the piece, then there’s a whole bunch of improvisation, but the form never changes. Always this form. The blues 12 bars, 12 bars. You start a solo, you end on the twelfth bar. The tune starts on one and you play the tune again, and you repeat it, and you might have something at the end. It’s always the same, then you might always have these stuff in the middle. We make a boo boop, a boo boop, you know, in the middle, but, it’s - it’s not difficult I don’t think. But, but so all those students, you know, I say it’s the journey. I’m gonna start you on a journey of how you’re gonna listen when you’re listening on your phone. I’m starting this journey, here we go. “Oh but what if I can’t hear it?!” Eh, this is a journey. I know you guys - instant - everything is instant, you get on your phone, everything is instant. This is not instant, I’m starting this journey with you. [laughs] So those are people who never thought about it. And so, I’m trying to help them - I’m trying to help them move in their musical life and to listen and hear things rather than, saying, you know, I always say, can you be - I want you to be the vanguards for my life. I want when somebody comes up to you and say, “You see the concert? Last night?” I want you to say, “Oh, oh yeah, I saw them, but I really heard it.” You know, even I say that sometimes. See the concert last night? Why would we ever say did you see the concert. Well, it’s obvious, right? Visual things. Well we better get down because I don’t think the trumpeters are going to start without us.
S: Well thank you.
D: So if you want to come in again, I’m sorry I’m rambling so much but -
S: No, it was very helpful.

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Davison talks about how a majority of faculty members are classically trained and do not understand other genres of music. Furthermore, the issue goes beyond the department itself - many students who attend the University do not understand jazz as an art form or attend enough concerts to grasp what it is.

Keywords: American jazz; Classical music; Cuban jazz; Musical form; Teaching; Understanding

Subjects: Blending jazz rhythms; Jazz in a classical-based music department; Musical form and jazz form; Teaching jazz; Understanding the student