About

JohnDavisAboutPhoto
Photo by John Halpern

In his multi-faceted career as a pianist, musical sleuth, writer, archivist, and curator, John Davis has excavated and disseminated a previously unacknowledged African  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  once-enslaved pianist from Georgia, Thomas Wiggins,  became a top-ten seller in Classical Music at Tower Records and Amazon.com. That recording,  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. The album 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 John’s third CD, Halley’s Comet: Around the Piano with Mark Twain & John Davis [2010] pays tribute to Twain’s wide-ranging musical interests, especially his love of African American performers such as Blind Tom. The renditions of the Twain-related compositions featured on the album were “played powerfully and with a rich palette,” according to The New York Times.

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 at other important classical, jazz, and roots music venues and festivals across the United States and abroad marked the listening public’s first exposure to countless piano works not heard since the lifetime of their composers. John appeared in 2016 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 2018, John performed a program in honor of the 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 19th– and early 20th-century printed musical African Americana. This archive — encompassing rare books, sheet music and other ephemera, as well as artworks — is widely respected in the antiquarian world. More importantly, it is the source for many of the ideas and materials that have filtered into John’s recordings; his many writings on Black music; his one-man, multi-media, theatrical concert about Blind Tom, entitled Will the Real Thomas Wiggins Please Stand Up!; his Chitlin’ Circuit-inspired nightclub show of Black music-influenced piano works that he calls The John Davis Caravan: Standing At the Crossroads; and his concert version of Halley’s Comet: Around the Piano with Mark Twain & John Davis. In 2017, John’s archive 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. Most recently, John was honored for his interdisciplinary work by The American Academy in Rome with The 2023 Rome Prize in Design.

Initially, John’s pursuit of Blind Tom caught the public’s attention during runs of Will the Real Thomas Wiggins Please Stand Up!, at the Culture Project in New York, and at Brown University’s Rites & Reason Theater, a hallowed incubator of theatrical work by important African American playwrights. A performance by John at The Martin Luther King Festival 2000 in Atlanta, broadcast over NPR’s Performance Today and sponsored by the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the Atlanta Symphony, Morehouse-Spelman College,  and National Public Radio, cast further light on Wiggins’ overlooked music and career.  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 work with Blind Tom on CNN, CNN-International, the BBC World News, ABC Radio National (Australia), and NPR’s All Things Considered. Subsequent acknowledgments of John’s contributions were given in The Independent (London); Time Out New York; Scientific American; the magazine of African-American culture, American Legacy; and on NPR’s Here & Now; On Point; and The Takeaway. In 2002, John collaborated with Wiggins’ blood descendants in placing a headstone atop Blind Tom’s previously-unmarked remains in Brooklyn, a ceremony that became the subject of a “Talk of the Town” piece in The New Yorker Magazine by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Elizabeth Kolbert.  Will the Real Thomas Wiggins Please Stand Up! 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’ Life 360. A program-long interview of John aired as well on ABC’s Nightline Up-Close, later reprised in a special “Best of Up-Close” edition.  John has also appeared 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 in just the last year, John and his Blind Tom CD were featured in two more articles in The New York Times, the first by the eminent trombonist and composer, George Lewis, and the second by The Times’ Chief Classical Music Critic, Anthony Tommasini, that was also published in the London newspaper, The Independent.

John Davis Plays Blind Tom has even resonated beyond the world of classical music. Two tracks from the album, along with music by avant-garde jazzman, Albert Ayler, were adopted by Lorna Simpson as the soundtrack to the celebrated 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 the Elton John release, Diving Board, produced by T-Bone Burnett.  Before then, John’s CD prompted 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. 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 previously 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.

John has also added extensively to the literature on Blind Tom, Blind Boone, and other overlooked early African American musicians. In addition to his 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. Baraka’s essay, entitled “Blind Tom: The Continuity of Americana,” was later republished in Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music, a compilation of Baraka’s music writings issued in 2009 by The University of California Press. John 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 (now the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research) at Harvard University. That same entry appeared with others by John on Blind Boone and Louis Moreau Gottschalk in the landmark, multi-volume African American National Biography, released by Oxford University Press in February, 2008. John also co-authored a substantial chapter on Blind Tom and his purported mental disabilities for the book, Stress and Coping in Autism, published by Oxford University Press in 2006, and contributed a chapter to Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins: The Life and Times of Blind Boone, released in 2012 by Truman State University Press at The University of Missouri.  Most recently, John crafted the essays in Bamboula! Black Music Before the Blues, the accompanying catalogue to the exhibition  he curated at Brown in 2017.   He also wrote the scripts to 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, the one-man, multi-media, theatrical concerts with which he regularly tours.

Prior to his work in African American music and culture, John earned critical praise for his recital debuts at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and The Wigmore Hall in London, and for his regular collaborations with many of the world’s most respected chamber musicians. Solo recitals in San Francisco, Chicago, and St. Louis led to several tours of Asia and Eastern Europe sponsored by the U.S. State Department, 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 with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra as part of a nationwide tour of India.

John is a graduate of The Phillips Exeter Academy, and 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 Performance at The Juilliard School under the tutelage of Beveridge Webster, and studied with Herbert Stessin. John is a Steinway Artist.