Jazz pianist Mark Davis educates in class and on stage
Jazz these days isn't a genre known for its easy accessibility. It's generally thought of as music for the elite, for those who have cultivated an appreciation for its history and nuances. It's a popular notion that renowned local jazz pianist Mark Davis is fully aware of.
"It's probably always going to appeal to people who have taken the time to become a little bit educated about music," Davis said. "It's probably not a style that will come easily to the masses. It requires a little bit of background and maybe a little bit of education to understand it before you can really appreciate it and love it. So it's probably never going to have the mass appeal that other styles have."
For the past 22 years, however, Davis has been doing his part to bring a love of jazz to people. When he's not teaching and guiding future jazz artists at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, he's playing jazz piano concerts across the state – such as an upcoming show this Sunday afternoon at Ascension Lutheran Church, 1236 S. Layton Blvd. – giving audiences a different type of lesson in jazz appreciation.
Davis started playing piano when he was 8. He began with classical works, but as he grew up and his skills progressed, he began to shift his attention to jazz.
"Getting into jazz was sort of a natural progression for the interests I had," Davis said. "There's a complexity to the harmonies, and the improvisational aspect – being able to create music and interact with other musicians in a spontaneous way – is something that I enjoy."
In high school, Davis started studying at the Conservatory with renowned Milwaukee-born jazz pianist David Hazeltine, who he still cites as an influence on his playing and teaching. While he continued to study classical piano in college – as well as tangentially earned his degree in visual art – jazz overwhelmingly became his focus.
It soon transformed into Davis' career. He moved back to Milwaukee after college in 1990 to play and teach. Two years later, Hazeltine moved to New York, opening up a job for Davis at the Conservatory where he began teaching and inspiring his students the same way he was taught and inspired by fellow jazz pianists like Hazeltine and jazz legend Barry Harris.
"Barry has influenced me both in his teaching style and in his playing," Davis said. "He has a very natural, relaxed approach to making music. He's playing extremely complex harmonies and melodies, but he presents them in a way that seems effortless. It's something that appeals to me, that kind of effortless and lyrical approach."
And for 22 years, Davis has stayed there, eventually taking over as the Chair of one of the longest running jazz programs in the nation.
"It's a combined effort," Davis said. "We're all committed to trying to bring awareness of jazz to our community and trying to educate people."
So far, their mission has been a success. In 2002, he created a jazz sextet called We Six that performs a concert series at the Conservatory and released its debut album in 2005 called "Bird Say."
This past Valentine's Day weekend, Davis went to New York to watch the Batterman Ensemble – one of the Conservatory's top groups of high school students, led by Davis and Eric Jacobson – take part as one of only three finalists from across the country in the Charles Mingus High School Festival and Competition.
It's the third year in a row the Conservatory has had a group selected for the competition. One of their students, trumpet player Travis Drow, was even chosen as an outstanding soloist, earning him the right to sit in with the Mingus Big Band at the Jazz Standard, a great NYC jazz club.
"It's sort of mind-boggling how advanced some of these young players are," Davis said. "It's very cool for our students to be able to go out and hear other very talented students from across the country. It's both inspiring and humbling. You realize there are some great players out there, but it's inspiring because you realize that there's great things happening in Milwaukee, and our players have that potential of making it out into a bigger scene."
Davis' goal to educate and bring awareness to jazz doesn't stop in the classroom, however. His concerts function as a sort of education as well, bringing jazz and its uniquely sporadic yet finessed complexities to an audience. Even Davis is still learning and gaining new things and ideas from the music. One jazz musician in particular he's been toying with of late is Thelonious Monk, whose music he'll play Sunday afternoon, along with some Duke Ellington and classic jazz standards from the Great American Songbook.
"His compositions and harmonies are very unique," Davis said. "It gives an improviser a lot to work with because there are a lot of different directions you can go in with this music. His music is also very challenging, so there's that element as well. The challenge of trying to do something with his music is a fun challenge."
A fun challenge, just like jazz music can be overall. At least that's Davis' hope.
"Popularity, I suppose, is another issue, but there are a lot of people that are learning about the music, and there are a lot of great young players that are coming up," he said. "The music is healthy, and it's very vibrant."
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