G-Sync: Variations on the theme

"We have to, in music, continue to find ways to reach the community," says music artist Duane Davis to Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen. Davis reflects on being the father of two international music stars debuting on St. Cecilia's Music Center's stage and on how a culture building project could actually help break down barriers.
There is a wonderful moment in Stephen Sondheim's musical Sunday in the Park with George (based on Seurat's painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte") when several characters in the multi-generational family converse in front of the famed painting.

In this tender moment, the grandmother reveals via a song that only two things are truly handed down over time: children and art. It is a moving tribute to the power of the artist in each of us to create something that lasts, whether a child or a work like this painting. Children often are the repositories for family stories that evolve as they're passed down, and their beautiful perspectives are often presented as a variation on the theme.

I could not help being reminded of this song's power as I listened to Grand Rapids Community College's and Western Michigan University's Duane Davis trip lightly over several years' worth of stories about his two sons Xavier and Quincy Davis, both world-renown musicians. The Davis brothers will be joined on stage by bassist Matt Brewer, who is himself the child of Aquinas professor and trombonist Paul Brewer, this Thursday. The three musicians will perform together at this first-ever gathering at St. Cecilia's Music Center's Jazz Series opening concert, "Homecoming – a Family Reunion."

Both the art that will be created on stage and the story behind the musicians reflects the evolution of the local music scene. Duane, well known in our area for his work as a GRPS teacher and later as a voice professor at Grand Rapids Community College and WMU, moved to Grand Rapids from Cleveland along with his wife Kaye in 1969.

Many years prior to his move to Grand Rapids, Duane knew he had talent but he did not have the grades he felt he needed to advance in the music field. Duane felt that, with the additional reality that his parents simply could not afford the music lessons he would need to develop his art, his options would be very few. So he went to work for the railroad.

"Many people may have thought, looking at my grades, that I should not pursue a career in music. Given the emphasis on grades, I will admit I was not motivated given the strikes against me from my G.P.A. to the economics from where I was as a child," says Duane. "One day I bumped into a former teacher of mine who asked why I wasn't in college and after I replied with the long list of reasons why, including ultimately that I didn't know why or what to do, she simply said, 'You should be in music.'"

A light went on his head and he enrolled in college, quickly accelerating in the field of art that would eventually lead him to our city. To this day, he is still eternally grateful for this teacher's role in his life because it changed him. Her influence and faith in his talents could not be quantified by simply looking at his G.P.A.

Duane and his wife settled down as educators in Grand Rapids. The couple got busy making a family that would include the two boys with a sister in between them in the birth order.

"Our home was always filled with music as Kaye and I both had devoted our lives to this art," says Duane. "Kaye not only taught piano out of our home in the community for years but she made sure that all of our kids learned piano at a young age."

The kids may have taken different paths to arrive at their current careers, but all three blossomed under this arts-centric education. The parents knew education with an emphasis on the arts or musical approach was critical for their development but the children also picked up other critical skills along the way, like math proficiency as well as love for foreign languages.

Both Xavier and Quincy would go on to attend Interlochen Arts Academy -- as would Matt Brewer, but never all of them at the same time. According to Duane, at Interlochen, music students must exhibit a classical music proficiency foundation before they can move into any of the other branches of music, including jazz.

This is critical reason (as well as the education they would all gain at the college level) that all three of the younger performers have excelled in their careers, earning accolades from all over the world. And this is why the fathers of both families are so excited about the SCMC concert; with this homecoming show, they expect some real magic to cross the stars that night.

"You can expect to hear some original compositions from our sons but also when Paul and I join them on stage for a few numbers I expect we will dive into the Great American Songbook," says Duane, who expresses a fondness for this era of jazz, but acknowledges that his sons are truly into creating their own original compositions, which will surely be a part of SCMC's program.

When I ask Duane if it is scary to perform in such a unique situation as this, he is quick to remind me that jazz purposefully places us all - from the band to the audience - on edge a bit. He adds that, rather than experiencing fear, for the members on stage, this is exciting since jazz is very different than, say, a classical music experience.

"When you are playing classical music, it is a note for note recreation of the work," says Duane. "On the other hand, each jazz performance is unique in that we don't know exactly what the night's set will entail nor do we know the path the music will take until we are in it."

This variation on the theme is what jazz does best and for one night we as a community will be treated to the methaphorical aspects of this pairing, as a multi-generational presence will be showcased as well.  

When not performing around the world, all three sons have accomplished other prestigious achievements. Xavier is a professor of music at Julliard (for piano). Quincy is learning to be proficient in Japanese. Matt placed third in the 2009 Thelonias Monk International Jazz Bass Competition.

Duane has enjoyed his fair share of professional advances as well, and those no doubt have made an impact on his sons' drive to achieve. It is not uncommon for Duane to stumble across a performance of a guest artist visiting our city who used to be one of his students. Duane's whole being lights up when he shares these revelations.

When Duane was on a tour in France with the WMU Gold Company during the last years of his tenure, he was truly moved at the reception jazz receives in other countries. He fondly remembers the sustained applause the sextet received after its performance at the 2009 Polyfollia Music Festival. It was a highlight of his career, and an inspiration for him to continue promoting jazz – a genre he calls "our nation's music export" – both at home and abroad. He would love to see this type of reception here but knows it takes removing barriers that are often placed around jazz.

So his work continues. Lest you think Duane's outreach is limited to just his vocal work, jazz and education, one need only look at his long list of accomplishments in our community and beyond, whether it be with the Grand Rapids Symphony, his work with Opera Grand Rapids, or even as director of The Disney-Grammy All American College Singers at EPCOT for Walt Disney World. Going forward, Duane is working again as choral director for Opera Grand Rapids' next production of Madame Butterfly.  

"We have to, in music, continue to find ways to reach the community," says Duane building on his theme of breaking down barriers. "Diversity in our community can be delivered via our musicians and our artists. We have to do more than just say we want it, but provide it through our actions."

For Duane, this means that we need to ensure that our area students are given an opportunity from us as adults or leaders, that we will listen to the next generation in an attempt to understand that their time is now, and that we remember it is just as real to them as it was to us when we were their age. He says we have to engage a generation by validating their time here on earth as just as valuable.

"We need to give people a chance to express themselves by pressing pause on our lives or preconceived ideas of life and listen," says Duane. "When we listen or pause, we open an opportunity to stretch our ear a bit as well."

That is a beautiful metaphor we can all use as a reminder as we embark on a new year. And we can in one small way do this by attending SCMC's Homecoming event this Thursday to listen to the multi-generational talent in this first-time endeavor for the Davis-Brewer families who have been a big part of our community for many years.

If you are worried about not knowing the music or understanding jazz, that is great according to Duane, who reminds us that sitting in an audience is a way to hit pause, too. Taking the time to listen to things you do not understand will eventually provide greater understanding.

"We need to be unafraid," says Duane. "to say, 'let’s discover this together.'"

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor & G-Sync Events: Let's Do This.

Editor's Note: Tickets for the January 23, 2014 St. Cecilia Music Center Jazz Series concert featuring Xavier Davis, Quincy Davis and Matt Brewer with special guests Duane Davis and Paul Brewer are $35 and $40 and student tickets are $10.  Please visit ww.nyc2gr.com or call 616-459-2224 for more information.

Photos supplied by Duane and Kaye Davis, including the wonderful image of their family in front of St. Cecilia's Music Center. Images of Duane at home, courtesy of Tommy Allen for Allen + Pfleghaar Studio at Tanglefoot, 2014.
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