Anthony Davis: Getting jazzed about community engagement

Composer and jazz pianist Anthony Davis has seen it all. What excites this sixty-two-year-old UC San Diego professor of music is helping younger artists just starting out.


Anthony Davis, UC San Diego professor of music

UC San Diego always has to find its way to have a voice and be a force,” said Davis. “Jazz Camp helps us have a wide range of interaction with the community.”

A five-day musical immersion, UC San Diego Jazz Camp is where musician instructors and students communicate with musical notes and also with the words that impart jazz history and theory and all aspects of life as a musician.

“What makes me say ‘wow’ is when I hear something that I didn’t expect them to do,” says Davis. “I’ve had a few students like that, including Joshua White a couple of years ago. He’s developed into a really great musician.”

White, who honed his jazz chops as a teenager at Jazz Camp, placed second at the most prestigious annual competition in jazz, the Thelonious Monk Institute’s International Jazz Competition.

"This is the jazz world's equivalent of the Van Cliburn Competition in classical music, so it is a major accomplishment to be selected from an international field of musicians. Just being asked to be there is a huge accomplishment," said Daniel Atkinson, the founder of the UC San Diego Jazz Camp, where White started learning jazz with Davis and the other instructors back in 2003.

In 2013, another Jazz Camp alumnus, David Morales Boroff, was awarded a Presidential Scholarship (full tuition and living expenses) at the Berklee College of Music where he currently is pursuing a Film Scoring and Professional Music Degree. At a young age Boroff began experimenting in composition and improvisation with blues, bluegrass, American country, tango, Indian classical music, be-bop, and, of course, jazz.

“David is an extraordinary artist,” says Davis. “The minute you hear him, you know he has passion for music. He has an extraordinary ear. He engages in the music emotionally. He’s way beyond his years, musically. I’m very excited to see how his career unfolds.”

Jazz Camp allows students from ages fourteen to seventy-plus to study, jam, and create with some of the world’s finest musicians.


“I’m also excited UC San Diego has been so supportive of Jazz Camp over the past few years,” added Davis.  “Under the leadership of Dan Atkinson, who has been so influential in promoting jazz in San Diego and bringing Jazz Camp into being, Jazz Camp has become a real institution that is part of our school and part of the community.”

Students and faculty have agreed that the rate of growth people experience at the camp is phenomenal. A typical day begins at 9 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m., when participants have to be encouraged to take a break and get some rest.
“Since I am involved in the auditions each year, I see the degree of progress that a student can make in only five days of concentrated study,” says Atkinson, who is also the jazz programming director for the La Jolla Athenaeum Music & Arts Library. “The students draw a huge amount of inspiration from the faculty who are real masters of the art form, as well as from one another. They leave the camp with many more concepts than they have been able to assimilate during that one week.”

Atkinson points out that what’s unique regarding the Jazz Camp program is they teach about a whole spectrum of different styles of jazz. “The focus here is not on how to play an instrument—as the students come with aptitude. The focus is on helping them learn to improvise on their instruments. It’s not just Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, but a whole set of different approaches to improvising.”

Before joining the UC San Diego faculty in 1997, Davis taught at Yale, his alma mater, and Harvard. He is best known for  his operas, including X, the Life and Times of Malcom X, which was premiered by the New York City Opera in 1986; Amistad, which premiered with the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1997; and Wakonda’s Dream, which premiered at Opera Omaha in 2007.

“Anthony is a great American composer who has created a significant body of work in opera,” said Mark Dresser, a fellow professor and Jazz Camp instructor. Dresser stated that Davis has the rare ability to bring together disparate musical elements, from Indonesian and African music to the work of jazz legends Monk and Ellington.

malcom-x-bw.jpgDavis received acclaim as a free-jazz pianist and was even invited at one time to join the group Grateful Dead. Instead he chose a path similar to that of his father, a university professor who eventually became the chairman of Yale’s Black Studies Department in 1973.

“I feel lucky to be around and still be productive, and I have a lot of plans for the future to do more music,” Davis told the U-T San Diego newspaper when he turned sixty. “I hope it is true that music can keep you young!”


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