October 2006

An Interview with Ron Davis
by David Fujino
The Live Music Report recently sat down in conversation with Toronto-born pianist Ron Davis before his October 26, 2006, 'Sayonara Tour' concert at the Al Green Theatre in Toronto.

Shortly after this concert, Ron will set off for a 10-week stay in Japan under the auspices of the Japan Foundation's Uchida Fellowship for the Performing Arts, and as a Visiting Scholar at Tokyo's Hosei University.

We definitely wanted to learn more about Ron and his music.

The following interview took place on October 4, 2006.
(Photo of Ron Davis was taken in June 2006 by Roger Humbert)

The Live Music Report Ron, where were you born?

Ron Davis Toronto.

LMR Well, what kind of kid were you?

RD I was a 'multi-kulti' (multicultural) kid — the son of Holocaust survivors — with a difference. We're Jewish. Before the War, my father was born and lived in the part of Rumania that was ethnically Hungarian. He spoke German, Rumanian, Hungarian, Yiddish and Hebrew, all of which he needed in his day-to-day life. My mother was born in Warsaw, Poland. Their marriage, at the time, was a kind of Hatfield and McCoys affair. They arrived in Canada in 1948. I grew up on a street that was as much Italian as Jewish.

LMR What kind of music did you hear at home?

RD Classical, but not a lot. My parents had a limited education and weren't really well-off, but they had that European respect for Classical music. They instilled that in me, and I remain a lover of Classical. And I grew up listening to the Beatles, James Taylor and other 60's and early 70's pop.

LMR When did you first play piano?

RD At the age of eight I said — I guess like so many kids — "I want to play the piano". My father thought about it, took it seriously, and he bought a piano and private piano lessons for me, even though I know he didn't have a lot of money. A wonderful private teacher in the neighbourhood came to teach me, Philip Fine. I was a bad music student, by the way, and just hated being forced to practise. A few years later, I shaped up, and did attend the Royal Conservatory of Toronto where I studied classical piano with Margaret Parsons-Poole, and theory with Barbara Wharram and William Andrews. They were all top-flight teachers there. Finally, I ended up with the late Darwyn Aitken, who taught me piano and theory. He was one of the greatest teachers I know of in this country, and worked with many people who have gone on to become prominent jazz players.

Ron Davis (June 2006)
LMR Are you an only child?

RD I'm the youngest of three boys. One's a retired Bank Manager. The other's a highly successful Bay Street lawyer. As you know, I used to be a lawyer as well. I guess I zigged, instead of zagging, and came back to music full-time. And I couldn't be happier. (In 2002, Davis stopped his part-time practice of litigation law.)

LMR Are your parents musical?

RD No, they're not, but they have a high respect for knowledge and creativity.

LMR O.K. — when did you first want to play jazz?

RD Twelve. Rag-time! It was "Maple Leaf Rag" I heard. And that was it! I taught myself to play it.

LMR The Scott Joplin tune! ... So, as they say, 'You heard The Call'

RD Yes — I did! Ragtime led to stride piano, Fats Waller and Willie "The Lion" Smith, one of my idols, and then to Art Tatum, another idol. And that's how this jazz pianist was born.

LMR Ron, I saw on your website that you were ... from 1993 to '98, an Assistant Professor in the Department of French at U of T. You taught a 3rd year course.

RD Correct. I completed my PhD in 1993, and the Department was good enough to offer me this non-tenure, part-time position.

LMR Whew! ... and your PhD thesis at U of T's Department of French was, "Chronosemantics: A Theory of Time and Meaning"?

RD Yes. Don't ask! (smiles)

LMR How come French?

RD It was my parents' impulse, especially my Dad's, to make sure that I fit in and became a good Canadian boy. We had 'white' looks and Anglo names (my Dad was born Davidovitch.) He saw that in the 1960's there was a push for bilingualism, so to become truly 'Canadian', he started me on French lessons from an early age. By the time I got to university at 18 years old, it was natural for me to go into French Studies. My goal was to be a pianist, though. Law and French Studies were a detour from music, an 18 year detour, from 1979 to 1997.

LMR Ron, when did you start gigging in clubs?

RD 1997–1998... but these days I'm moving more towards playing in theatres and concert halls. At one point, I played a lot in clubs, especially in Toronto. I was particularly fortunate to host a jam session every Sunday for 4 years at a Toronto club called Gate 403.

LMR I wondered, what are you listening to these days?

RD Not much... classical music, usually... but I don't really listen a lot to jazz... As Sonny Rollins says, it's too much information. He hasn't listened to jazz for some 30 years.

LMR How would you describe your music?

RD For want of a better term, I admit to being a jazz player — but it's a confluence of influences. I'm from the jazz world, but not of it. There is a lot of Classical and some older pop in what I do. I mean, I AM a part of the jazz scene. My music corresponds to the feeling and spirit of jazz, the sound of surprise. It's a constant process of pulling musical rabbits out of hats, and occasionally, hats come out of rabbits. Many of my influences are from swing, ragtime, the Oscar Peterson school, then there's the Art Tatum influence. A lot of the forms and formats are 'jazz-like', but I've inserted so much of myself into the musical syntax and semantics that many identifying badges of jazz aren't present. I don't play much that is recognizably bebop, for example, or the 'voicings and lines' style, as I call Bill Evans' work.

LMR Quite a few European jazz players avoid the blues and funk in their music. I wondered, is the blues present in your music?

RD It's a real pinch of paprika in the stew... but overwhelmingly, there's jazz and classical. At times I feel that if you were living in the 1800's, 'classical' was living, vital music — it was THE creative form. In our days, it's 're-created'. In that sense, my music is classical, being created out of the soil of jazz and classical — but blues, in the sense of a post-slavery African-American form of blues, I do identify with. And, don't forget, there's a huge multicultural influence in jazz. Wynton Marsalis rightly refers to jazz as 'gumbo'. There's a Native influence in it, a Jewish influence, and others in addition to the predominant African-American foundation.

LMR Right! Right! When you hear klezmer music, and the clarinet that's dare I say, 'Dixieland-ish', the syncopation, you can hear this link.

RD Yes, but there's also the fact that — especially in the 1920's — American klezmer and jazz were in a 2-way influence. Yes, of course, Jewish music is an influence in jazz... and although Art Tatum is SUCH an influence on me, perhaps more so there's Willie The Lion Smith.

LMR Yes! Willie The Lion Smith is Jewish.

RD I'm impressed. A lot of jazz listeners don't seem to know this. And then, don't forget, there's Benny Goodman, Ziggy Ellman, Artie Shaw, Stan Getz...

LMR Ron, you've just become a Recipient of the Uchida Fellowship for The Performing Arts. How did this come about?

RD It's given out by the Japan Foundation. Every two years, one grant is always given to an artist from New York, and one to an artist from another city. This year, it was Toronto's turn, and I got it. Also, I've already toured Japan twice in 2004 and 2005, and have gotten to know people at various Japanese institutions as well as the Embassy of Canada in Japan. And I've played for the Consul General here, and for Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado in Japan...

LMR What are Japanese audiences like?

RD Well... I remember at one of my first concerts in Japan, my fingers started to tense up at one point. I became frightfully aware of the audience that was listening so carefully, so intensely to me. I got over it. It was all right after that. In my experience, Japanese audiences are the most respectful ones. They are the stuff of musicians' dreams.

LMR Who is Junichi Miyazawa?

RD He's my sponsor for the Uchida Fellowship. Junichi Miyazwa lives in Tokyo. He's a musicologist, a university lecturer, a critic, a researcher and writer. He's translated more than 10 books on music, from English, Russian and French. He's an expert on diverse subjects such as Glenn Gould and Russian literature. He is heavily involved in Canadian studies. He's an incredible person, and a great friend. He's just published in Japanese a book on Glenn Gould, and was awarded a major prize for it. I met Junichi in the early 80's as members of the Glenn Gould Society, based in Groningen, The Netherlands!

LMR How many times have you been to Japan?

RD My trio toured in 2004 and 2005. This year will be my third visit. Of course, you know the hospitality and treatment are beyond incredible.

LMR How long will you be in Japan?

RD Ten weeks...

LMR As part of your fellowship, I understand you'll be stationed at Hosei University in Tokyo as a visiting scholar. What else will you be doing?

RD I'll actually be studying some Noh (theatre). I've been practising kneeling in seiza posture for about three minutes every day.

LMR Three minutes ... I kneel about 15 minutes practically every day. You know, stretch the ligaments in the legs. It's good for the legs — and think about it, the Chorus members in the Noh play I was in (The Gull) — they kneeled for 75 minutes straight.

RD 75 minutes!

LMR Ron, how many CDs do you have out? Three?

RD Four, actually. Two are out of print. And I have a fifth, Subarashii Live, a live recording coming out in the spring of 2007.

LMR So... what does the future hold for Ron Davis?

RD Lots. When I release the new CD, I hope to also roll out a new website and focus for my music. I am looking to tour internationally, and I want to really explore performing my music with a symphony orchestra. Plus, I still have many tunes in me, waiting to come out.

LMR What do you do for relaxation, when you're not playing music?

RD I spend time with my wonderful wife, the singer/songwriter Daniela Nardi. Check her out at www.danielanardi.com. Fitness is important — especially long walks. I love reading — novels are my current focus. And movies. A major obsession.

> Our report on the Sayonara concert > www.rondavismusic.com
We welcome your comments and feedback
David Fujino
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Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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