Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

September 17–24, 1998

fall guide|behind the scenes

Francis Davis


"In a way, it's the job of the critic to be
pessimistic, to point to higher standards
and a better day":Francis Davis

With a Coltrane bio in the works, the Philly critic continues to expand jazz history.

by Nate Chinen

Francis Davis is a seasoned veteran when it comes to the art of the jazz interview—but he's usually the one asking the questions.

For the past 15 years or so, Davis has been a prominent voice in jazz criticism. Raised in Philly and educated at John Bartram High School, the writer/critic/historian ("I usually just call myself a writer") has earned both Pew and Guggenheim fellowships in recent years. His last book, Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (Shirmer Books), was a collection of essays culled from previously published material—many from the Atlantic Monthly, to which Davis often contributes. Like the Sartrean pun behind its title, Bebop and Nothingness blends the intellectual with the visceral, academic discourse with plain speech. It's a smooth and effective style, and one which characterizes most of Davis' work—including, one would suspect, his current major project: a biography of John Coltrane.

Davis discovered jazz in high school, during the early to mid-'60s. "When you're 16 or 17," he explains, "you're looking for new worlds to be conquered by." His first exposure was through WHAT-FM, a Philly jazz station; soon he began reading jazz magazines and buying LPs, classic titles like Getz/Gilberto, Coltrane's Sound, and Dedicated to You, by Ray Charles. "I really got into Art Farmer and Jim Hall, Sonny Rollins," Davis recalls. "But I was also picking up Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp."

After high school, Davis stayed in Philadelphia and enrolled at Temple University. Although he was both a writer and a jazz fan, Davis still hadn't considered music journalism. "It wasn't a quick transition. I was writing all the time, but I wasn't writing about jazz—I was an English major, so I was mostly writing critical papers and research papers, also some poetry, novels I couldn't finish." His interests started to converge in the late '70s, when Terry Gross (now Davis' wife) asked him to host a segment on Fresh Air, her radio show. Davis did a spot on out-of-print jazz records. By 1979, Davis had sent copies of his radio scripts to various publications. He got several assignments from New Jersey's Courier-Post, all the while maintaining his job at a local record store. Then, a stroke of luck: "I got laid off from my job, which turned out to be a lucky break because it gave me a lot of time." He visited an unemployment agency once a week, but "there was no pretense that they could find [me] a job, so I had 39 weeks when in effect I was being subsidized to write." He began contributing to Cadence, a small music mag that couldn't afford to pay its reviewers. "But I had all this time. I think in one month I did 23 record reviews for them." In a matter of time, he was getting more assignments, from larger publications like down beat, Jazz Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Boston Phoenix. For a while, he worked as jazz editor at Musician magazine. Was it tough to make ends meet as a freelance writer?

"Oh God, yeah," Davis laughs. "I like something Kevin Whitehead once said in response to a question like that. He said: 'You have to be prepared to live like a graduate student well into your 30s and 40s.'"

Over time, though, perseverance pays off—or at least lands you another gig. Davis' writing for periodical publications not only formed the basis of his first two books, but justified a Pew grant and his first Guggenheim fellowship. It didn't take long to decide on a Coltrane biography. "Over the years, interviewing people for the Inquirer and elsewhere, naturally Coltrane's name came up a lot. I had already talked to Percy and Jimmy Heath, and a number of other musicians, about themselves but also about Coltrane. Then the first editor who had been interested—this always happens—left the publishing house. But the fact that she had been interested even before a proposal made me think this was a thing I should do."

Davis' decision was also influenced by the polemical contradictions between existing biographies, a situation that effectively rendered all of the accounts factually suspect. "In those previous books, Coltrane becomes a sort of Rorschach—he means different things to each writer." The major exception to this rule would be John Coltrane: His Life and Music (University of Michigan Press), a biography of Coltrane by Rutgers professor Lewis Porter, published last year. "Lewis' book has changed the playing field," Davis explains. "Reading the [previous texts], they were in dispute about the most basic facts—so you really had to start from scratch. Lewis' book is factually impeccable, so there are things there that you can take for granted." Davis' approach will, of course, take a different angle than Porter did. "Lewis and I have talked about this," says Davis. "We're different kinds of writers and different kinds of people. For example, I'm much more interested in the places in North Carolina where Coltrane grew up." Like Porter, Davis is critical of previous attempts to write a biographical portrait as if from Coltrane's own point of view; internalized, highly fictionalized accounts. "I don't feel confident enough to do that," Davis says. "Perhaps if it were a novel—sometimes I wish it were."

Davis still lives in Philadelphia, although he's not as ubiquitous a presence on the local club scene as he may have been in days past. "I'm not the world's fastest writer," he says, describing the serious demands of the biographical project. "If there's somebody who really interests me, I'll turn out. I won't go out just to hear something. Sometimes I think if I'm writing about something, I'm more critical about it, but I also enjoy it more. If I'm taking notes, I'm much sharper; I have more involvement with it somehow."

A quick examination of his preface to Bebop and Nothingness will also reveal a sort of critical dissatisfaction with the predominant, youth-crazed culture of modern jazz. "In a way, it's the job of the critic to be pessimistic," Davis claims, "to point to higher standards and a better day. It does still distress me that musicians you admire, you go to see them and there's 14 people in the audience. Someone like [pianist] Paul Bley should be much better known." When prompted, Davis adds a few more names to a short (and uncomprehensive) list of important contemporary musicians: trumpeter Dave Douglas, clarinetist Don Byron, pianist D.D. Jackson, tenorists Seamus Blake and Mark Turner, and guitarist Bill Frisell among them. Basically, he explains, "the people who are connected with the Knitting Factory but not limited to it."

At the same time, Davis has not restricted his interests to strict jazz pursuits; Bebop and Nothingness includes some writing on Prince, Michael Jackson and Barbra Streisand. He checks out hip-hop and funk, and has been listening to ska for several years now. "In terms of pop, I sometimes happen to hear things and I sometimes happen to like them. One of the pleasures of doing a Sinatra piece for the Atlantic Monthly was that I listened to nothing but Sinatra for about a month. It was the same thing with Burt Bacharach. I just began to notice things that I had never noticed before, about the richness of the music."

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