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Gambit Weekly Return of the Jazzman

By Geraldine Wyckoff

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Which native New Orleanian graduated from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) has recorded five albums as leader for a major label, has shared a stage with greats such as Clark Terry, Benny Carter and Mulgrew Miller, and has performed with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra?

Well, you might think of someone like Wynton or Branford Marsalis or Harry Connick Jr., or maybe even Nicholas Payton. But you'd be wrong. The answer is Jesse Davis.

If Davis requires a reintroduction to the people of his hometown, he's not surprised. He left here as a teenager right after graduating from NOCCA some 15 years ago. The alto saxophonist returned about a year and a half ago as a successful and noted jazz musician who has earned praise from fans and critics alike.

Davis' busy schedule as a leader on the Concord Jazz label and as a sideman -- most recently heard with trumpeter Payton -- has meant that many don't even realize he's back in New Orleans. Saturday night's gig at Snug Harbor is one of the very few local jobs featuring Davis as a leader.

"I'm looking forward to doing this and giving everybody an opportunity to get to know me and my music," says Davis, 32. "I'm happy to be home and equally happy to be playing at home."

Following the advice of musician/educator Ellis Marsalis, Davis headed north in 1982 to study at Northeastern Illinois University.

"He didn't feel I was quite ready to make that jump from New Orleans to New York," says Davis, who stayed in Illinois for three years before heading to the Big Apple. "Then I felt that I was ready to go to New York City, though no one's ever ready. But I'm happy that I made the move when I did. I took the Louis Armstrong route."

Davis found great success by leaving home, so many young players ask him the obvious question that has plagued jazz musicians through the decades: Should they move to New York to further their careers?

"One thing about New Orleans has definitely changed since I was here," Davis says. "I used to beg Ellis, 'Where can I go to play? Who can I play with?' There just didn't seem to be a lot of young cats in the city playing jazz. And there was really no place to play and hang out. So we had no choice but to leave.

Jesse Davis is back home in New Orleans after making a name for himself elsewhere.

"What I try to tell the young guys I meet down here and elsewhere is that it's a different day now," he says. "You don't have to leave home necessarily. If you really want to move to New York or where you think it's really happening, do it. But if you're doing your homework and getting it together and getting a chance to play and further your knowledge, then stay where you are. Get your stuff together to the point where you know that when you set foot in New York and you go to a jam session or a gig, that it's together. You'll know when it's the right time."

Being back in New Orleans for almost two years has given Davis time to reflect on those aspects of the city that have had a lasting affect on him as a man and musician.

"The greatest thing that it instills in an aspiring musician is that you grow up hearing different types of music," he says. "It also teaches you to have fun with music. But the most important thing that I've always kept with me throughout the years, especially after I left, is the emotional side of it. New Orleans is more of a blues-based town than the world gives it credit for. In coming back, I truly understand what it is I took with me and kept close to my heart all these years. It is a sense of warmth and family and camaraderie."

Having spent almost two years as a sideman traveling and recording with Payton's band -- he's heard on Payton Gumbo Nouveau -- Davis is now back to work as a leader. He recently was in the studio working on an upcoming album.

His immediate plan is to create a "base" band with a rhythm section featuring players from New Orleans. At the Snug Harbor gig, Davis will be heard with drummer Adonis Rose, bassist Jason Stewart and pianist Dwight Fitch. They will perform standards, some new Davis material and songs from his releases, including his latest, From Within (Concord).

"I want to play as much as I can in New Orleans," he says, "because I want to be home as much as I can. I only want this to be the beginning."

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