About

JohnDavisAboutPhoto
Photo by John Halpern

In a multi-faceted career as pianist, recording artist, writer, archivist, and curator, John Davis continues to define, excavate, and disseminate a previously-unacknowledged American roots music. To date, John is most associated with three seminal CDs on the Newport Classic label. John Davis Plays Blind Tom [2000], 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 [2008], 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,” reported 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 [2010], 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 John’s, lies at the intersection of black and white culture in American society.

John’s performances at Carnegie Hall (NYC), Strathmore (MD), Alice Tully Hall (NYC), The Gilmore Keyboard Festival (MI), Wigmore Hall (London), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC), The Great Hall at the Moscow Conservatory (Russia), Joe’s Pub (NYC), The Narrows Center for the Arts (MA), Le Poisson Rouge (NYC), The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (CA), The Symphony Space (NYC), The National Centre for the Performing Arts (India), 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. In 2016, John 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. He gave a solo recital a month later 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.” This past summer, John paid musical tribute to the pioneering 19th- and early-20th century African American opera singer, Black Patti, as part of the three-day celebration, America’s First Black Diva: Sissieretta Jones at 150, later highlighted in an “Overlooked No More” obituary for Jones in The New York Times.

The bedrock of John’s grassroots pursuit of forgotten black culture is his personal collection of rare 19th-and early 20th century printed African Americana. This archive of rare books, sheet music, and ephemera, widely respected in the antiquarian world, has been the source for many of the ideas and materials that have filtered into John’s concerts, recordings, and literary contributions. In 2017, it became the basis for Bamboula! Black Music Before the Blues, an exhibition of 19th-century printed musical African Americana he conceived and curated at Brown University’s esteemed John Hay Library.

Initially, John’s work connected to black culture caught the public’s attention during runs of Will the Real Thomas Wiggins Please Stand Up!, his one-man, multi-media theatrical concert about Blind Tom, at the Culture Project in New York and at Brown University’s famed Rites & Reason Theatre, a hallowed incubator of new work by important African American playwrights. John’s performance at The Martin Luther King Festival 2000 in Atlanta, sponsored by National Public Radio, the Atlanta Symphony, the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and Morehouse-Spelman College, cast further light onto the forgotten music and career of Thomas Wiggins. Soon thereafter, a substantial article about the release of John Davis Plays Blind Tom appeared on the front page of the “Arts and Leisure” section of The New York Times, and catapulted the CD into a top seller. Stories followed about John’s 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 John’s contributions were given in The Independent (London); Time Out New York; Scientific American; and the magazine of African-American culture, American Legacy; as well as on NPR’s Here & Now and On Point, and on 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. In 2002, John collaborated with Wiggins’ blood descendants in placing a headstone atop the pianist’s previously-unmarked remains in Brooklyn, a ceremony that became the subject of a “Talk of the Town” piece in The New Yorker magazine. Will the Real Thomas Wiggins Please Stand Up! then inaugurated the 2003-2004 season at The Symphony Space in New York. A later performance of the show at the Springer Opera House, the State Theater of Georgia was filmed for an extended story about John and Blind Tom on PBS’s Life 360. A program-long interview of John was also aired on ABC’s Nightline Up-Close, later reprised in a special “Best of Up-Close” edition. And on the heels of his success with Will the Real Thomas Wiggins Please Stand Up!, John charted new territory at The American Academy in Rome, and then in 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.

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. John’s recording also inspired Bernie Taupin and Elton John to co-write “The Ballad of Blind Tom” for Elton John’s release, Diving Board, produced by T-Bone Burnett. Before that, it had been the catalyst for singer/songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips to compose “Blind Tom” for his 2009 album, Little Moon, and Terry Clarke to write and record “Blind Tom in Hoboken” for the British Rockabilly artist’s 2006 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.

Complementing John’s recordings, concerts, and archival work are his writings on black music. His extensive liner notes to John Davis Plays Blind Tom, Marshfield Tornado, and Halley’s Comet, and 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 important contributions to Blind Tom scholarship by major literary figures. John’s unpublished scripts to each of the one-man, multi-media, theatrical concerts with which he regularly tours — Will the Real Thomas Wiggins Please Stand Up!; The John Davis Caravan: Standing at the Crossroads; and Halley’s Comet: Around the Piano with Mark Twain & John Davis — are also substantial pieces of writing. John contributed lengthy biographical profiles of three of the pianist/composers featured on his recordings to African American Lives [2004] and the African American National Biography [2008], edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and published by Oxford University Press in conjunction with the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research (now the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research) at Harvard University. In 2006, John co-authored (with psychologist M. Grace Baron) a significant chapter about Blind Tom’s purported cognitive disabilities for the book, Stress and Coping in Autism, also published by Oxford University Press. More recently, he contributed a chapter on Blind Boone’s music to Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins: The Life and Times of Blind Boone [2012], released by Truman State University Press at The University of Missouri, and crafted the essays for Bamboula! Black Music Before the Blues, the published catalogue documenting the exhibition of 19th-century printed musical African Americana he curated at Brown.

Prior to his work focused on African American culture, John had earned critical praise for his recital debuts at Alice Tully Hall in New York and Wigmore Hall in London, and for his regular collaborations with many of the world’s most respected young chamber musicians. After successful concerts 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. John subsequently appeared as soloist with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra as part of a nationwide tour of India. Also during this period, he was profiled in countless foreign and domestic print publications, and appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America and The Today Show on NBC.

A graduate of The Phillips Exeter Academy, John holds a B.A. in History, and Russian Language and Literature, from Brown University. 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 The Juilliard School under the tutelage of Beveridge Webster, and studied with Herbert Stessin. John is a Steinway Artist.