An interview with
Francis Davis

By Beppe Colli
March 16, 2004

I believe that the first piece by Francis Davis that I read was a profile of Roscoe Mitchell that appeared on Musician magazine about twenty years ago. I greatly appreciated that article, but finding more material by Davis proved to be not so easy, the majority of the pieces he wrote appearing in U.S. newspapers (New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer) and magazines (The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Stereo Review, The Village Voice) that were for me quite difficult to get. So I was really glad when his first collection was released. Titled In The Moment (1986), it was followed by Outcats (1990) and Bebop And Nothingness (1996).

There are many reasons why Francis Davis is held in high esteem by many. He obviously knows his stuff - jazz, sure, but also rock and pop; and let's not forget theater, cinema and television, in those instances when music plays an important part. He knows how to explain facts pertaining to musical language in a way that's deep but clear, so as not to exclude the uninitiated reader. He knows how to place musical artifacts in the context of wider cultural frameworks, but never at the expense of the music - i.e., the "cultural signifier" never becomes the smokescreen behind which music disappears. His writing stile is quite cultured, while at the same time making for smooth reading.

Like Young (2001) was his most recent collection when - last year - I contacted him via e-mail, asking for an interview. Though he's a very busy man, he kindly agreed. His answers arrived two days ago. His most recent collection is being released as I write: titled Jazz And Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (DaCapo), it includes his own selection of the best material from In The Moment, Outcats, and Bebop And Nothingness, along with a few pieces not previously collected.

Norah Jones's debut album on Blue Note went multi-platinum and won many Grammys. (A cover version of her "surprise hit" Don't Know Why is featured on a recent CD by Pat Metheny, One Quiet Night.) For all practical purposes, is this what "a jazz tune" and "a jazz artist" are for the "average American", or is this only true when it comes to the press?

Good question. Only the press, I think, and not the millions of people who bought her first CD and probably think of it as pop - as do I. I hear what sounds like a certain Vince Guaraldi influence in her piano playing on Don't Know Why, but I don't consider her a jazz singer. Her model as a singer - consciously or otherwise - seems to be Stevie Nicks, of Fleetwood Mac, rather than Billie Holiday. As a songwriter, she's like Carole King, though nowhere near as good.

Then again, I don't think Cassandra Wilson, for example, is a really jazz singer, either, and truth be told, I actually like Norah Jones a little better, or mind her a little bit less, because she's not as pretentious. In a way, what does it matter if something is jazz? Ninety-five per cent of the world's great music, from the beginning of time, has been something other than jazz. But the only problem with touting Norah Jones as jazz is that to do so creates unrealistic sales expectations for everybody else. The major labels aren't going to be satisfied with an instrumentalist or another singer who sells only twenty or thirty thousand CDs, which would once have been considered quite respectable. They want another jackpot, another Norah Jones.

In your first collection, In The Moment, you talked about "Ornette Coleman's Permanent Revolution". After, say, Rova Saxophone Quartet, who do you regard as doing valuable (structural, compositional) work in the "jazz field" (whatever meaning you attribute to this word)? If I'm not mistaken, you singled out trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas as one of the most vital realities in recent years in jazz. Has he lived up to your expectations? Are there any names you'd like to add to the list?

Dave Douglas has certainly lived up to... I feel more comfortable saying "his potential" than I do saying "my expectations", because my expectations or those of any other critic should be of no concern to Douglas or any other musician. He's working closer to the mainstream now than he was five or six years ago. I mean, Strange Liberation, his newest CD, takes as its starting point 1960s Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter in much the same way that Wynton Marsalis's Black Codes From The Underground did, the only difference - an important one - being that whereas Marsalis's starting point was Miles Smiles or Sorcerer, Douglas's is Miles In The Sky or Filles De Kilimanjaro, when Miles and his band were beginning to incorporate elements of progressive rock, including electric keyboards and an 8/4 time feel. But Douglas is doing it superbly, doing more with the same basic materials than Wynton managed to, I think.

The other younger (or fairly young) musicians who are really doing something different and exciting, and who come to mind most readily, are all pianists - Matt Shipp, Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran. I don't know that any of them would describe it this way, but it seems to me that all of them take off from early Cecil Taylor, pursuing some of the things that Taylor himself abandoned when his music opened up wider in the late 1960s.

For all of that, though, the stuff I've heard lately that's excited me most has tended to be by musicians in their sixties or seventies. I'm thinking of Wayne Shorter, Andrew Hill, Steve Lacy, Roswell Rudd, Sam Rivers, Misha Mengelberg, Ornette - people like that. Overall, I think this current period isn't as exciting as... well, you don't have to go back to the bebop revolution of the late 1940s, or free jazz in the 1960s. The 1980s were a tremendously fertile period, thanks to players and composers like Henry Threadgill, John Carter, Muhal Richard Abrams, Julius Hemphill, and Anthony Davis, all of whom were questioning the very nature of jazz, which is to say the relationship between composition and improvisation. Practically no one noticed, because the music was in the doldrums commercially. But there was a great flowering then. I hope it doesn't prove to have been a last flowering.

In your most recent collection, Like Young, you included a piece on Ken Burns's Jazz TV series. Was the series-influenced jazz sales boost in the USA a permanent reality or a brief phenomenon?

It was a very short-lived phenomenon, and the only CDs that got much of a boost from it were the anthologies that piggybacked off the series.

I see that Down Beat magazine now lists at the end of their CD reviews the URLs of the websites where one can purchase the CDs. What is the current situation when it comes to the distribution of (major, indie) jazz CDs in the shops, chains etc.?

Well, I live in Philadelphia, which is a pretty large city, and get to New York pretty often. So theoretically, I should be able to put my hands on any CD I'm looking for. Yet I find myself ordering more and more on line, because I read about things, or hear about things, that I can't find in stores in Philadelphia or New York. And buying CDs at gigs - one of the nice things about the annual Vision Festival in New York is that there's always a table in back selling CDs I haven't seen anywhere else, usually put out by the musicians themselves. But yeah, distribution is lousy in the U.S. It's a real problem. The chains put a lot of the smaller specialty stores out of business, and now they're hurting too, carrying fewer and fewer esoteric items all the time. The web has come to the rescue, to some extent, but it's never going to replace record stores for people like me, who enjoy the social aspect of browsing.

In Like Young you also included pieces on Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach, The Velvet Underground. Are there any "pop/rock" artists you currently like? Are you familiar with Phish?

I've heard just enough of them to know I'm not interested, same as I've never been interested in the Grateful Dead. If all I wanted from music was endless noodling... well, there's already too much of that in jazz. What I want from pop are things that jazz can't give me, beginning with songcraft.

Who do I like now? Well, I tend to like the sort of things that middle-aged white people who still bother at all with pop like. Björk, OutKast, Beck, Radiohead, and a lot of this and that. I don't go out of my way to hear things, the way I do with jazz. I hear something in a movie or see a band performing on television and decide I like them. It's all very chancy, but maybe that's the way pop is supposed to work.

On the other hand, I hear plenty of records that way that drive me up the wall. Pink's This Is My Vietnam, for example, is easily one of the stupidest things I've ever heard - maybe my least favorite record since Nelly Furtado's I'm Like A Bird (She's like a bird, all right - a tweety bird.) And most of the rap I hear, or overhear really, is numbing in its stupidity, or the pride it takes in its stupidity.

For what it's worth, I still listen to a lot of older things - and some newer things as well - by the people you mentioned, plus the Kinks, Neil Young, Al Green, Richard Thompson, Bryan Ferry, Leonard Cohen, and other abiding favorites. This isn't just nostalgia. I think I hear things in Neil Young's records of the early 1970s, for example, that went right past me back then. It's as though those records have somehow matured along with me, if that makes any sense.

I recently read again your piece on Burt Bacharach, which - like most pieces of yours that I've read - is pretty long and articulated. From my experience, the trend nowadays is to have pieces that are more like "morsels" - a "quick read" - on magazines that you can peruse, and especially so when it comes to the "arts" pages. What's your take on this? And, in this respect, what's your opinion of the magazines on the Net? (I seem to remember that in his review of Like Young in The Wire, Ben Watson wrote that your well-educated readers were a luxury he did not have.)

If memory serves, he wrote that The Atlantic Monthly's affluent readership was blessed with a leisure that allowed them to read long pieces like mine. That's nonsense - Marxist theory that hasn't been adjusted to changing times. In the U.S. now, except for those with inherited wealth, the more money you make the less time you have. And I assume it's that way in the rest of the world. There are no 40-hour jobs anymore.

On the larger point, about the great length of some of my pieces: Actually, my editors would be delighted if I wrote shorter pieces. (And what you're reading by me in the magazine, including the piece on Bacharach, is usually shortened considerably from what I turned in. I restore some of the excised material in my books.) They let me go on as long as they do because... well, because I tend to go long, as they say in the magazine and newspaper business, and because I've been with the magazine practically forever and am shown a consideration that wouldn't be extended to someone who was just starting out there.

Why do I go on so long? Part of it is the context. I'm addressing a readership that knows almost nothing about, say, Wayne Shorter, and consequently I have to explain things that could be taken for granted if I were writing about him for a music magazine. I need to establish who he is, and why he's worth writing about - and that takes up many column inches right there. At the same time, there have to be ideas in the piece; ideas that transcend music or the question of whether someone's new CD is any good or not, because regardless of whether my readers have the leisure to read a long piece or their level of education, I've got to grab their attention quickly and hold it for a few thousand words. I mean, after all, there might be an article on the future of Islam or something like that in the same issue, and I'm competing with that. It's not like I'm trying to provide the last word on Wayne Shorter (to use him as an example), or even the first word. In terms of most of The Atlantic's readers, what they're hearing from me is the only word they're ever going to hear about him.

Finally, though, I write long pieces because that's my nature. Believe me, I admire brevity. I just don't seem able to achieve it.

Are you currently writing for US magazines only? Once you wrote some pieces for The Wire, but no more?

I wrote for The Wire under Richard Cook, and for a little while after he left. But they gradually lost interest in jazz, and - I guess - in me as well. So, yeah, all the publications I'm writing for now are U.S. publications. But that shouldn't be taken as jingoism. It's just the way it is. I'll write for anybody if they pay me enough, give me enough space, and allow me editorial discretion in terms of who and what I write about.

One of the themes running through Bebop And Nothingness was what you referred to as "The Commodification Of Youth". In this respect, what's your opinion of singers/songwriters such as Ani DiFranco, Lucinda Williams, Aimee Mann and Lisa Germano who (with various degrees of success) deal with "adult" themes in an "adult" way? Are they popular in the USA?

They're popular enough, I suppose, but nowhere near as popular as Pink or Eminem or Britney Spears. I've come to like Aimee Mann a lot, especially after hearing her songs in the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Magnolia. Lucinda Williams I like, too, though not as passionately as some people I know do. What I've heard by Ani DiFranco sounded pretty silly to me, and I don't know that I've ever heard Lisa Germano.

It's tough to put forward an "adult" point of view in pop, because pop as it's evolved since the 1950s is pretty much about youth and youthful expression. Some of the women you mention manage to do it once in a while, but a lot of the older, more grown-up singer/songwriters I hear are as self-dramatizing as any 18-year-old teen princess or gangsta rapper.

Did you catch The Rolling Stones during their recent US tour?

No. I saw them in 1972, and they seemed too old for what they were doing even then. I shudder to think what they're like now.

© Beppe Colli 2004 | March 16, 2004