The laws of jazz
By Mike Foster
Jazz pianist Ron Davis (J.D. ʼ82) never quit the day job but for 18 years he did shelve his dream of being a professional musician.
Davis is the youngest son of a Jewish father and mother who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust as inmates of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp and the Skarzysko-Kamienna labour camp, respectively. His parents, who settled in Toronto in 1947, worried that a career in music would never pay the bills.
“The traumatic aftereffects were present in the household forever. My parents were amazing people who, despite being impoverished and denied a full education and a childhood, managed to create a somewhat normal, lower middleclass family life in Toronto,” explains Davis in a telephone interview. ”My parents, having known what it was like to be destitute, didn’t want that for their son. They didn’t see the material comforts in a music career. They were worried about that. They urged me to become a lawyer.”
His father had bought him a piano when he was eight years old, after years of Ron pestering him. He recalls playing “Maple Leaf Rag” while he was at school, with the girls he liked gathering around him. Throughout his youth, he devoured classical music and jazz, practising up to 12 hours a day. He studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and with Darwyn Aitken, a student of Oscar Peterson’s.
However, in 1979, he set it all aside to come to the University of Ottawa to study common law in French. Davis says he had an affinity for the French language thanks to his parents, who had embraced Canada’s bilingualism, enrolling him in French school in Toronto.
While at uOttawa, Davis spent more time in the music practice rooms than he did studying, although he went to classes and ended up tied for 14th place in grades in his class.
In the mid-1980s, after working full-time as a civil litigation lawyer for a few years in Toronto, he decided to practise law part time and take an “academic detour” to study French linguistics.
In 1993, he got his PhD at the University of Toronto and was awarded a Department of French award for his thesis, Chrono-semantics: A Theory of Time and Memory. For the next five years, he was an assistant professor at the U of T.
However, when a jazz musician friend, saxophonist Doug Banwell, insisted that he start jamming with him in 1997, Davis re-connected with his true calling. One jam led to another and pretty soon, Davis was playing in cafés, and then, larger venues.
Today, he is recording his 10th full-length album, Pocket Symphronica, and he has taken his critically-acclaimed, eclectic jazz blends on tour, playing in Russia, Japan, the United States, Hong Kong and Poland, not to mention countless gigs across southern Ontario and Quebec. Davis is a resident jazzman at Toronto’s legendary Lula Lounge.
Last March, he played the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow with his wife, singer Daniela Nardi, in a show entitled Espresso Manifesto, which the couple had also performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2013.
His latest album, due for release later this year on eOne Records, includes string quartet arrangements of his original songs, as well as a version of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” The project is a follow-up to his last album, Symphronica, a jazz-symphony fusion album recorded with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra and renowned conductor John Morris Russell.
Even though he is now focussed on music, Davis continues to work occasionally at the law firm of Fogler Robinoff LLP, mainly providing legal support services. In the early 1990s, he worked on two major personal injury cases. He says there is a common thread that runs through the law, linguistics and jazz.
“The connection between trial law and jazz is in the process. The music I play is a strange balance between preparation and improvisation,” says Davis. “It is also a type of music that requires a great deal of background work and study in order to free you to improvise. And litigation was the same. When you go into a courtroom you are not sure what is going to come up. You have to improvise but you need a lot of background training and preparation. It is fair to say that jazz is a vocabulary. It is a grammar; it has its own syntax. All of the elements that go into the makeup of a language are present in jazz.”
Davis is known for experimentation and innovation, mixing up genres which at first glance seem like oil and water. His eighth album, Blue Modules, blended rock and pop with postmodern jazz, and included Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.”
Davis says using jazz to find common ground across different styles of music is one way to keep the genre alive and relevant.
“Jazz is now over 100 years old. If you are born after 1985, jazz is probably going to be seen as your parents’ music, a bit like classical music. But jazz in its day was pop music — parents didn’t want their kids to listen to it. Songs that are now jazz standards were pop songs in their day. I am really interested in capturing that spirit, in honouring the jazz tradition, but at the same time reaching people born after 1985 and saying here is that song you recognize and here is our jazz treatment of it, and this is the energy of jazz,” says Davis.
He also performs with Toronto-based Japanese taiko drumming group Nagata Shachu. He says he fell in love with their sound when he first saw them.
“I just knew I had to do something with them. It wasn’t an obvious pairing. We found a way to blend the sounds,” says Davis. “We rehearse in an industrial park in Scarborough. The only neighbours are machine shops, which are probably the only thing that makes more noise than a Japanese drumming ensemble.”
Davis also spent some time in Japan. In 2006, he was awarded the Japan Foundation’s Uchida Fellowship for the Performing Arts and was a visiting scholar at Hosei University in Tokyo.
For seven years, Davis was co-producer of Jazz for Herbie, a benefit concert series for the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. He is also a past secretary of the Glenn Gould Foundation.
Now back in the studio, with sound engineer Dennis Patterson and his long-standing quartet of Kevin Barrett (guitar), Mike Downes (bass) and Roger Travassos (drums) all co-producing, how does Davis get ready to preserve his songs for posterity?
“It is a bit like asking a chef when they go into the kitchen, ‘Is the dish all planned out or is it all improvised?’ I have a pre-production spreadsheet of songs. Every project is different. With Pocket Symphronica, because there are so many moving parts, I can’t leave too much unplanned, but I also have to leave a fair bit of room for inspiration.”
Eighteen years after he returned to his true passion, Davis concedes that his parents were sort of right – even with 30 to 50 gigs each year, mainly in the very competitive jazz market of Toronto, and with nine albums recorded, it’s tough to make a living and it’s getting tougher. However, Davis has improvised his own unique career path.
“In the 18 years that I have been back in music the industry has changed radically. CD sales have plummeted — online sales are much more important. It has come to the point where very few people — maybe the Taylor Swifts — generate income and profit from their recordings. Do I make ends meet? I am fortunate that I have my law degree. Pretty much everyone in the music business does something else.”
He adds, “When I first saw the ‘Defy the Conventional’ tagline, I thought, ‘That describes my life.’”
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Ron Davis plays a grand piano and electronic keyboard simultaneously at a gig at Koerner Hall in Toronto. Photo: Arthur Mola.