Born Anthony Davis, February 20, 1951, in Paterson, NJ; son of Charles Twitchell and Jeanne Davis; married Deborah Atherton; children: Timothy. Education: Yale University, B.A. in music, 1975. Addresses: Office--c/o American International Artists, 515 East 89th Street, Suite 6B, New York, NY 10128.

In the 1980s and early 1990s Anthony Davis, an award-winning composer and jazz pianist, became known for his unique, challenging, and ingenious operas. In addition, he has written three film scores, one of which was awarded an Oscar in 1980. He is also an educator, having taught music and Afro American studies at several universities, including Yale and Harvard. As a composer and pianist, Davis has been labeled too intellectual by conventional jazz musicians and too jazz-oriented by classical musicians. His compositions are notated, yet improvisational in tone and are often built around complicated, constantly changing atonal lines.

Davis studied classical music in college, but his music has been heavily influenced by the African American tradition of swing and bebop. As a composer and pianist, Davis has been labeled too intellectual by conventional jazz musicians and too jazz-oriented by classical musicians. His compositions are notated, yet improvisational in tone and are often built around complicated, constantly changing atonal lines. Davis often struggled to conform his musical style to well-established norms. Eventually, he created his own niche. "I always tried so hard to fit in, and then I figured out I didn~t want to fit," Davis said in the New York Times. "I knew I could never be accepted as a straight-ahead jazz musician, nor would I accept myself as that. I would never be accepted as a minimalist. I wouldn~t be a "downtown" composer. Because I find all orthodoxies, all doctrines, to be ultimately banal."

Anthony Davis was born on February 20, 1951, in Paterson, New Jersey, and grew up in a family with a long hitory of academic achievement. His father was the first black English professor at Princeton University and later became the first chairman of Afro American studies at Yale University. Several of his ancestors founded the Hampton Institute, one of the oldest black colleges in the United States. Although he was a gifted child, Davis often felt lonely growing up as a black youngster in predominantly-white college towns. This was particularly true when his father taught at Penn State University in 1961. "I was in a community where everyone was listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones," Davis recalled in the New York Times. "I was the only one who listened to Temptation records. But the isolation gave me a freedom to explore things for myself."

Davis was exposed to jazz at an early age because his father loved music and was acquainted with several jazz musicians, some of whom performed at the Davis home. Davis taught himself to play jazz tunes and composed his first piano piece, A Pirate~s Song, before the age of six. He took piano lessons and temporarily gave up studying jazz in favor of classical works by Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin. By the age of 15, Davis~s interest in jazz had returned and he began listening to the music of jazz artist Thelonious Monk, who became his role model.

Davis attended college at Yale University. While he was a student, he and several other musicians formed the group "Advent," which played free jazz concerts at the university. Davis met jazz trumpeter and composer Leo Smith in 1974 and became a member of Smith~s band, New Dalta Ahkri. He also collaborated with Smith on two recordings. In 1975, Davis graduated from Yale with a B.A. in music.

After completing college, Davis continued to perform with Leo Smith and other musicians such as Leroy Jenkins, Anthony Braxton, and Marion Brown. He also formed his own quartet with musical artists Jay Hoggard, Mark Helias, and Ed Blackwell. In 1977, Davis moved to New York and played concerts at jazz lofts, nightclubs, and colleges. He gigged with violinist Leroy Jenkins~s trio from 1977 to 1979 and with flutist James Newton. Davis often played his own adaptations of compositions by jazz artists such as Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and Cecil Taylor. He released his first albums Past Lives, Of Blues and Dreams, and Crystal Texts in 1978. In 1979 his album, Hidden Voices, was released for the first time on an American record label. Davis also composed musical scores for movies.

In 1981, Davis formed "Episteme" ("knowledge" in Greek), an ensemble of flute, piano, bass, clarinet, trombone, violin, cello, and three percussion instruments. Members of the ensemble included trombonist George Lewis and cellist Abdul Wadud. The group~s first album, Episteme, contained compositions that blended jazz with African and Southeast Asian musical rhythms. Two of these compositions, "Wayang 2" and "Wayang 4," were named for a word or phrase connected with music played by percussion orchestras in Bali and Java. Members of Episteme initially wanted to experiment with different muscal styles. However, they eventually devoted themselves to playing Davis~s compositions exclusively, which made use of improvisation and notated forms, blended jazz, non-Western music, and classical avant-garde music.

Although some conservative jazz critics chastised Davis~s work, his reputation as a composer and performer continued to grow. He was commissioned to create pieces for dancer and choreographer Molissa Fenley, the Laura Dean Dance Company, and the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Several of Davis~s works received critical acclaim and "Wayang 5," which he created for the San Francisco Symphony in 1984, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

In 1983 Davis, his brother Christopher, and their cousin, poet Thulani Davis, decided to compose an opera entitled X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, about the life of black activist Malcolm X. The opera, which dealt with Malcolm~s life from his childhood in Omaha, Nebraska to his conversion to Islam and assassination in 1965, took three years to complete. The musical score was written for a full orchestra and incorporated elements of jazz, African American, and popular music to dramatize the controversial leader~s life and times. In the fall of 1986, X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X was performed before four sold-out audiences at the New York State Theater. It was only the second opera by a living black composer to debut in a leading American opera house.

Critical reviews of X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X were generally favorable. Time magazine described it as a "powerful, chilling opera.... Like its incendiary subject, X is notable not only for its accomplishment but also for what it represents.... With a fierce, angry and brilliant libretto by Thulani Davis, the composer~s cousin, X is at once a musical entertainment, a folk epic, a cautionary tale and a cri de coeur [cry from the heart]." Robert Schwartz observed in the New York Times, "Most remarkable is that Mr. Davis seamlessly integrates the diverse languages of Ellington, John Coltrane, non-Western music, and Alban Berg. By anyone~s standards, this is an astonishing first opera." Although X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X was successful, it has not been performed since 1986, partly because of its controversial subject matter and prohibitive production costs.

In 1987, Davis began working on another opera, Under the Double Moon. He was compelled to compose the opera after reading science fiction stories written by his wife, Deborah Atherton. The libretto, which was written by Atherton, tells the story of telepathic twins who live on a planet that is nearly underwater. The twins must decide whether they want to remain above water or opt for a more spiritual existence below the ocean. The music in Under the Double Moon was written for full orchestra and incorporated elements of gamelan, Indonesian orchestral music heavily influenced by gongs, xylophones,and drums. Under the Double Moon premiered at the Opera Theater of St. Louis in 1989 and received mixed reviews.

Davis~s third opera, Tania, told the story of the Symbionese Liberation Army~s kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1974. This opera raised several controversial issues concerning race, gender, and identity in the United States. Tania received some negative criticism following its premier at the American Music Theater Festival in 1992. A reviewer in Commonweal remarked, "The opera is serious about the problem of identity, not only for Tania/Patty, but within the society at large; but it is never as funny or as frightening as it ought to be to make so complex a point. . . . Nonetheless, it is theatrically fascinating because Davis~s eclectic score (his conscious use of jazz and popular music), Paul Steinberg~s sets, and Robert Wierzel~s lighting suggest a cohesiveness that the work as a whole never quite achieves."

In addition to his operas, Davis composed the music for the Broadway production of Angels in America, Part I: Millenium Approaches, which premiered in 1993. He created a work for the String Trio of New York entitled Sounds Without Nouns, performed at Pennsylvania State University in November of 1995. He has also been commissioned to work on another opera entitled Amistead, about a slave rebellion and mutiny in 1839. It is scheduled to premier at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1997. Davis is also working on The Circus of Dr. Lao, a music theater production for the Public Theater.

Selected Works Operas X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, premiered at New York City Opera, 1986. Under the Double Moon, premiered at the Opera Theater of St. Louis, 1989.

Other works have included the musical composition for the Broadway production of Tony Kushner~s Angels in America, Part I: Millenium Approaches, Angels in America, Part II: Perestroika, Sounds Without Nouns, commissioned for New York~s String Trio; Amistad, an opera in collaboration with director George C. Wolfe; The Circus of r. Lao, a music theater work commissioned by the Public Theater in New York City; and recordings including Of Blues and Dreams, Hidden Voices, Lady of the Mirrors, Variations in Dreamtime, Episteme, I~ve Known Rivers, Hemispheres, Middle Passage, Undine, and Under the Double Moon.

by Alison Carb Sussman

Anthony Davis's Career

Composer, pianist, educator. Co-founded Advent, (a free-jazz group), 1973. Played with New Dalta Ahkri, 1974-77, Leroy Jenkins Trio, 1977-79; member of duo and quartet with James Newton, 1978--; Episteme, founder, 1981--; Yale University, teacher of music and African American studies, resident fellow of Berkeley College of Music, 1981-82; Cornell University, senior fellow of the Society of the Humanities, 1987; Yale University School of Music, teacher, 1990; Harvard University, visiting lecturer, faculty member, 1992--; creator of several operas including X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, 1986, Under the Double Moon, 1989, Tania, 1992.

Anthony Davis's Awards

Bessie and Esquire Registry awards, 1984.

Further Reading


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