Via his performances, recordings, and writings, pianist John Davis continues to define, excavate, and disseminate a previously-unacknowledged American roots music. To date, Davis is most associated with three seminal CDs on the Newport Classic label. John Davis Plays Blind Tom , featuring piano works of the Georgia slave pianist, Thomas Wiggins, became a top-ten seller in Classical Music at Tower Records and Amazon.com, and, in the opinion of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “singlehandedly revived the lost legacy of Wiggins.” Marshfield Tornado: John Davis Plays Blind Boone , highlighting music of John William Boone, a sightless black pianist from Missouri who modeled his career on Blind Tom’s, has been a repeat #1 record on the Ragtime chart at Amazon.com, and was praised by Gramophone, the esteemed British music publication, for “turning the prehistory of jazz and blues into the living history of one remarkable man.” “In John Davis’ hands,” reports Living Blues, the world’s premier blues magazine, Boone’s piano works become “more than artifacts—they live, with an immediacy that cannot be denied.” And on Halley’s Comet: Around the Piano With Mark Twain & John Davis , the Twain-related compositions, “played powerfully and with a rich palette,” according to The New York Times, are a tribute to the wide-ranging musical interests of an author whose career, like Davis’, lies at the intersection of black and white culture in American society.
At the core of Davis’ grassroots pursuit of forgotten black culture is the pianist’s personal collection of rare 19th-and early 20th century printed musical African Americana. This archive, widely respected in the antiquarian book and ephemera world, has been the source for many of the ideas and materials that are the underpinning of Davis’ multi-faceted and cutting-edge career. His performances at Strathmore, The Symphony Space, The Gilmore Keyboard Festival, Joe’s Pub, Le Poisson Rouge, and other important classical, jazz, and roots music venues and festivals across the United States, marked the listening public’s first exposure to countless piano works not heard since the lifetime of their composers who, both white and black, had been woefully forgotten figures on the continuum of American music. In 2016, Davis appeared on the Lead Belly Fest at Carnegie Hall, during which he shared the main stage with some of the living legends of American roots music, rhythm & blues, and rock ‘n roll, including Buddy Guy, Eric Burdon, Edgar Winter, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Dom Flemons, Josh White, Jr., and Tom Chapin. A month later, he gave a solo recital at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on an 1882 Steinway that was the centerpiece of The Met’s exhibition, Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age. In 2017, Davis curated the exhibition, Bamboula! Black Music Before the Blues, at Brown University of 19th-century printed musical African Americana drawn from his own collection and the esteemed holdings of Brown’s John Hay Library.
Initially, Davis caught the public’s attention during runs of his one-man, multi-media theatrical concert about Blind Tom, entitled Will the Real Thomas Wiggins Please Stand Up!, at the Culture Project in New York and at Brown University’s Rites & Reason Theater, and via a performance of Blind Tom’s music at The Martin Luther King Festival 2000 sponsored by National Public Radio, the Atlanta Symphony, the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and Morehouse-Spelman College. Soon thereafter, a substantial front page article in the “Arts and Leisure” section of The New York Times about the release of John Davis Plays Blind Tom catapulted the CD into a top seller and led to stories about Davis’ pursuit of Blind Tom on CNN, CNN-International, the BBC World News, ABC Radio National (Australia), and NPR’s All Things Considered and Performance Today. Subsequent acknowledgments of Davis’ contributions have been given in The New Yorker; The Independent (London); Time Out New York; Scientific American; the magazine of African-American culture, American Legacy; and on NPR’s Here & Now and On Point, with Tom Ashbrook. Will the Real Thomas Wiggins Please Stand Up! inaugurated the 2003-2004 season at The Symphony Space in New York. Another performance of the show at the Springer Opera House, the State Theater of Georgia was filmed for an extended story about Davis and Blind Tom on PBS’s Life 360. A program-long interview of Davis was also aired on ABC’s Nightline Up-Close, later reprised in a special “Best of Up-Close” edition.
John Davis Plays Blind Tom has even resonated beyond the world of classical music. Two cuts from the album, along with music by avant-garde jazzman, Albert Ayler, were adopted by Lorna Simpson as the soundtrack to the esteemed African-American artist’s signature film installation, Corridor (2003). Commissioned by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoca), Corridor (2003) later became the centerpiece of a mid-career retrospective of Simpson’s work that traveled in 2006 and 2007 to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Miami Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum in New York. Davis’ recording also inspired Bernie Taupin and Elton John to co-write “The Ballad of Blind Tom” for Elton John’s latest release, Diving Board, produced by T-Bone Burnett; singer/songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips to compose “Blind Tom” for his album, Little Moon; and Terry Clarke to write and record “Blind Tom in Hoboken” for the British Rockabilly artist’s CD, Night Ride to Birmingham. And a cut from John Davis Plays Blind Tom (alongside those of Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole, Loretta Lynn, Al Green, Buddy Holly, Erykah Badu, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Ricky Skaggs, Zora Neale Hurston, Joe Tex, The Pilgrim Travelers, and Johnny Winter, among others) was selected for the accompanying CD to the “7th Annual Southern Music Issue” of the Oxford American, the magazine of Southern Culture founded by writer John Grisham and long prized by roots music aficionados.
Davis has also added extensively to the literature on Blind Tom and Blind Boone. In addition to Will the Real Thomas Wiggins Please Stand Up! and the pianist’s own extensive liner notes to John Davis Plays Blind Tom, Marshfield Tornado, and Halley’s Comet, the supplementary essays in the accompanying booklet to John Davis Plays Blind Tom by the actor, sleight-of-hand artist, and scholar of eccentric performers, Ricky Jay; the neurologist and eminent writer, Oliver Sacks; and the poet, playwright, music critic, and political activist, Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), constitute significant contributions to Blind Tom scholarship by major literary figures. Davis has also written the entry on Blind Tom in the one-volume African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and published in 2004 by Oxford University Press in conjunction with the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. That same entry appeared with others by Davis on Blind Boone and Louis Moreau Gottschalk in the landmark, multi-volume African American National Biography, released by Oxford University Press in February, 2008. Davis also co-authored a substantial chapter on Blind Tom and autism for the book, Stress and Coping in Autism, published by Oxford University Press in 2006, and contributed an essay to Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins: The Life and Times of Blind Boone, released in 2012 by Truman State University Press.
Prior to his work with Blind Tom, Blind Boone, and Mark Twain, Davis had already earned critical praise for his recital debuts at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and Wigmore Hall in London, and his regular collaborations with many of the world’s most respected young chamber musicians. After solo recitals in San Francisco, Chicago, and St. Louis, he was invited by the U.S. State Department for several tours of Asia and Eastern Europe, during which he appeared as concerto soloist with the Rousse Philharmonic in Bulgaria and became the first American artist in over a half-century to perform in long-isolated Albania. Davis subsequently appeared with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra as part of a nationwide tour of India. He has been profiled in countless foreign and domestic print publications, as well as on ABC’s Good Morning America, The Today Show on NBC, and King Biscuit Time, “Sunshine” Sonny Payne’s legendary blues program on KFFA-Radio in Helena, Arkansas that launched the careers of bluesmen Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Jr. Lockwood. And on the heels of his success with Will the Real Thomas Wiggins Please Stand Up!, Davis charted new territory in Rome, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York, with The John Davis Caravan: Standing At the Crossroads, his Chitlin’ Circuit-inspired nightclub show of black music-influenced piano works.
A graduate of The Phillips Exeter Academy, Davis holds a B.A. in History, and Russian Language and Literature, from Brown. His principal piano teachers during his undergraduate years were Aube Tzerko, Gabriel Chodos, and Seth Carlin. He subsequently earned a Master’s Degree in piano at Juilliard under the tutelage of Beveridge Webster, and studied with Herbert Stessin. John Davis is a Steinway Artist.