Monday, September 28, 2009
Local Queer Musician Releases New CD October 10
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Music was all Jeff Davis ever wanted to do with his life. He discovered his family’s piano at age five, and he’s been playing ever since. He began composing as a sophomore in high school and is about to release his 10th CD of original material. Many of his songs are inspired directly by his present or former partners, his friends and acquaintances and his extensive travels, many of them made possible by a semi-regular gig as a pianist on Holland America’s cruise ships.
Davis describes his music as “New Age” and “easy listening,” though he also admits there’s a strain of sadness to it. He says he never wants to become a “lounge pianist,” grinding out standard songs for audiences that aren’t listening to him, yet he’s worked as a background player for San Diego Queer community events as diverse as the San Diego Democratic Club’s Freedom Awards last August and the San Diego Leather Pride All Clubs’ Night (where our cover photo of him was taken) last March. He’s been an accompanist for the San Diego Men’s Chorus before its recent merger with the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus. He’s also a Leatherman — a lifestyle he stumbled into by meeting the right person to bring it out in him — and a slave in his relationship with his current partner.
On Saturday, October 10, at the University Christian Church, 3900 Cleveland Avenue in Hillcrest, Davis will be introducing his latest CD, Six in the City. (Actually, it contains nine pieces, but three of them are designated as “bonus tracks.”) The event will start at 7 p.m. and is in part a fundraiser for the Heifer Project (www.heifer.org), which provides quick relief funds to help people live through natural disasters. The event will also feature a silent auction of donated artwork.
Tickets are $10 at the door (no advance sales), and the CD can be purchased at the event for an additional $10 or ordered through www.jeffdavispiano.com. You can buy some of his earlier CD’s at that site or through www.cdbaby.com (where there are several Jeff Davises listed; he’s the one who’s “recommended if you like Dave Grusin, David Benoit, David Such”).
Zenger’s: Tell me a little about yourself, your background and how you got into music.
Jeff Davis: I started playing when I was five. My mom came out of the bedroom and said, “Who left the radio on?” And it was me playing “Born Free.” Music has just always been a part of my life. I started composing and arranging back when I was a sophomore in high school, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
I was fortunate enough to play in Carnegie Hall. I did that in 1982, and the next year I toured Europe with a group called America’s Youth in Concert. We played in London, Paris, Rome, Venice. That was 26 years ago!
I feel very fortunate that I get to do what I love, because there aren’t a lot of people that can say that. Even with the trials and tribulations of being self-employed, trying to find gigs, trying to find outlets for your CD’s, it’s not easy. Most of my friends tell me they like their jobs, but they don’t love them. A couple of them say, “Oh, I wish I could be doing something else.” For me, the support I have with my partner, Mister Bond, is total. “What do you want to do? O.K., how are we going to work that? How does that look?” So it’s been a fun ride so far.
All of the songs I compose are in the New Age genre. My specialty is easy listening, or as they used to call it, “elevator music.” I have played for two church bands, UCC’s New Traditions Bands as well as a church choir/band in Salem, Oregon, where I got out of high school.
Zenger’s: How’d you end up in San Diego?
Davis: I moved to Portland when I graduated from high school, and was there for 17 years with a 2 1/2-year stint in San Antonio as a travel agent and American Airlines reservation agent. I got tired of San Antonio just because of the heat, moved back to Oregon, and the months of rain just got me down. A friend suggested moving to San Diego, and my partner at the time and I did. My first CD was for my ex-partner.
Zenger’s: Was that when you were still together?
Davis: Yes, it was all for him.. We had been together 7/24, 365 for about a year and a half, and then his parents took him on a trip. I sat down at the piano and I hit “record” on my recorder, and out came this music. I named the song “David,” and the CD is called A Little Night Music: Originals + 1. At the time in my mind it was going to be if you’ve lost someone to AIDS. There was a song called “Duets,” and it’s played with two notes in the right hand. It goes all over, and then it ends on one solitary note, meaning the death of your partner.
There’s another song on David’s CD called “Rage and Acceptance.” That’s about when someone first finds out that they’re HIV-positive. The song works through your different emotions. And at the end, it’s O.K., it’s not a death sentence, I can do da-da-da-da-da. I have since decided to give that CD to University Christian Church’s Health and Shalom Project, because now it’s not just AIDS. It’s cancer, it’s leukemia, it’s whatever is the next one to come. And in my mind is this — the first one would be the red ribbon, and it’s suspended in clouds, and from that ribbon is all the other ribbons that are coming down.
After that first CD, different things would catch my eye or move me, and I’d turn them into music. With this one, Six in the City, I was sitting at rehearsal with the Gay Men’s Chorus of San Diego, and we got done doing a piece by David Conti called “Invocation and Dance.” As soon as we finished it that night, I scribbled, “You need to write something more slow, more classically oriented.” So I went home the next day and “Hope and Peace” came.
“In Service To” is for my partner, Mister Bond. It came as soon as I started doing the top notes. It was all about what a relationship is: trust, honor, respect and love. It just flowed. I did this when I got a job with Holland America as a cocktail pianist for six months. I was missing Mister Bond, and for his birthday I composed this song for him.
While I was on the ship, I met the “friends of Dorothy,” the Gays and Lesbians who come on cruises. I was the unofficial host, and I met two really super guys. We spent all of the cruise together, unless I was working, and one of them, Ken, never let anyone else get close to him. He just kept people at bay — except for me. We were sitting one night at the very top of the ship, and he just put his head in my lap. The next day, the music moved me, so to say, and “Sweet Caresses” came out.
Along the same lines, another friend of Dorothy whose name is Mark and I had another one of those chance meetings. We spent eight or nine days together and spent one night on his veranda. It was probably 70° outside, and the moon was right there. It felt like you could touch it. We sat there for six, seven hours just talking, and out of that came “Moonlight Veranda.”
Zenger’s: So are all the pieces on the new CD inspired by specific individuals that you’ve encountered and have some sort of affectionate tie with?
Davis: Yes. A dear friend, Priscilla, was just a feisty old broad who wouldn’t let anything get past her. She had a little cottage off of Robinson, and when she passed away I was able to house-sit in hr house while her daughter decided what to do with it. One day I went to the church and sat down at the piano, and out came a song for Priscilla. Her song is called “Eulogy,” and I also put it to video with pictures from her kids and from her friends. She was just a wonderful lady.
I’ve also done two with a guy named Mark Madero. He sings with In aChord [an all-male jazz vocal group in San Diego formed as an offshoot of the San Diego Men’s Chorus], and he’s probably my best friend. We did two CD’s, Songs That Remind Me of You and I don’t remember the other one. One song he really wanted to do was “Cinema Paradiso.” He gave me the sheet music for it, and I hated that song. He knew I was having a problem with it, and he came in one day to where I was rehearsing, put Henry Mancini’s daughter’s CD on and said, “Here, listen to this.”
I was at the piano, and I was listening to it behind me, and in about a minute I was playing it. By the time it was done I said, “O.K.” Mark said, “I hate you. You just take this and you do what I want it to be.” I’ve been his accompanist, for, God, a good eight or nine years.
Zenger’s: Would you say that your style has changed over the years, and if so, how?
Davis: My mom always said, “Son, your music is beautiful, but it’s always so sad. Why don’t you write something happy?” I said, “Well, Mom, you don’t go to a writer like Wes Craven and tell him to write a love story. This is my specialty.” And I think over the years it’s improved, just like anything, with time. From — I had someone tell me once, “We put your CD on because it’s really good for an even keel, because there’s usually the same tempo, and the dynamics are usually good.” I have a couple of friends who are teachers, and when their class gets rambunctious they’ll put on my H2O CD, which is all water themes and New Age.
I had a friend of mine who said I needed to do a CD of easy listening music, and where I used to record my music, the guy who ran the studio didn’t like me much as far as that goes, because I would come in and lay down my tracks on first takes. So it was — within an hour, I was usually in and out with my master CD.
Zenger’s: So he wasn’t making much money off of you.
Davis: No. Darned little.
Zenger’s: In these days, who needs a studio anyway?
Davis: You do if you want it to have a certain sound. Six in the City is the first CD I’ve recorded live on a real piano. It’s on a Yamaha concert grand. The rest of them were all done on [electronic] keyboards. But for this one, I wanted it on a real piano, because some of these chords, when you hit them. they have to ring, and you don’t get that on a keyboard, no matter how good it is.
Zenger’s: So this is essentially Jeff Davis’s acoustic album.
Zenger’s: How did you get involved in the Leather community?
Davis: Out of an ad on Adam for Adam. Mister Bond had a profile. I clicked on it. He came over to the house, and we sat and talked. I liked in his profile that he talked about energy and that that’s the basis of where things start. We did some stuff that I hadn’t previously done before, and I was turned on by it. When we were done, I told him. I said, “I’ve never been with someone like you. I like what we’ve just done,” and from there it started daily, either daily talks on the phone or actually seeing each other every day.
He gave me a journal to start writing my thoughts, and had me read S/M 101, which was a very insightful book. Again, the basis of it was trust, honor, respect and love. At the time we were — I was becoming a slave, and he was my Master. It’s still that way currently, but now it’s just part of my everyday life. It’s just like breathing. People joke that I took to S/M like a duck to water. The stuff that I’ve learned, you would give that respect to anybody. It was three years ago, July 27, that I met Mister Bond.
Zenger’s: I think that’s one of the things that attracted me to your story: S/M Leather slave and New Age musician. These are not two things one expects to find in the same person — although I think if you were a dominant, that would be an even weirder clash!
Davis: Yes, and what’s weird lately is that I’ve been fantasizing about being a switch. As I was telling Mister Bond the other night, I feel more comfortable around dominants or tops than I do with fellow slaves or subs. That’s not to say that I’m any better than they are. It’s just where I feel most comfortable. The guy that does the scene music for the Club X [San Diego’s combined male-female, Gay-straight Leather-S/M organization] parties has used a couple of my CD’s in the cooling-down period at the end of the parties. And at one time, they were on [Club X organizer] Caryl’s Web site as scene music, too. I’ve had people tell me that they listen to my music — the original stuff — they listen to when they are making love.
Zenger’s: I can see a very vanilla couple listening to your music while they were making love. I have a hard time imagining an S/M couple putting on your CD.
Davis: But everybody loves to make love. Regardless of whether you’re in the S/M community or your particular fetish is chocolate pudding, even the strictest dom could enjoy something soft during the making-love part. Now for the rest of the relationship, I could see that my music wouldn’t fly too well, but when they’re having a candlelight, romantic time in front of the fireplace, or as we say in the community, “vanilla” sex, I could see my music being appropriate.
For me, music has always been about emotion. Sometimes I get teary-eyed when the AT&T commercial comes on at Christmas. Or especially with the chorus, when we did a song called “When I Hear Music,” and the chord structure — I think we were in eight- or nine-part, and there was this phenomenal piano accompaniment under it by Glenn Ward, who I think is one of the finest pianists I’ve had the pleasure to sing with. He’s just phenomenal, and he edited my sheet music. Because along with this CD, for the first time, I will be releasing the sheet music of the six songs as well. And Glenn edited it for me.
Zenger’s: What do you think is in your future?
Davis: That’s a million-dollar question, isn’t it? Since my targeted audience is people who enjoy easy listening music, I would really like to play for more retirement homes. Not necessarily nursing homes, because by the time they get to nursing homes, a lot of times, the residents don’t know themselves, let alone any music. But I’m also recording my third Christmas album, which will be out in mid-November. I’m going to make it my own, so it’s going to be two works. The first work is all going to be holiday music that has minor keys, and then the second work will be major keys. So it will start out rather somber, and it will end on a joyful note.