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Jazzman Howard Davis, an Evergreen standard, dies at age 89

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By The Staff

A Celebration of Life Service will be held at the Evergreen Lake House on Saturday, Dec. 6, at 11 a.m.

Evergreen resident Howard Davis, whose career as a jazz musician spanned 65 years and included stints with some of the greatest orchestras ever assembled, has died. He was 89.

Davis’ working history was, in many ways, a history of the Jazz Age. His alto sax can be heard on literally thousands of recordings by some of the biggest names in American music.

Evergreen resident Sterling Nelson, founder of the Evergreen Jazz Festival, recalled the days when Davis’ group played at the Roundup Grill every Thursday evening.

“He put together a fine quartet, sometimes quintet, that was the equal of anything in the Denver area,” Nelson said. “He retired from music for the third and next to last time in the first edition of the Jazz Festival in 2001.

“It’s a real loss to music, but he gave people a lot of pleasure.”

Davis’ rise to the top ranks of music was an unbroken succession of bold risks and lucky breaks that began in his parents’ home outside of Youngstown, Ohio. His parents bore a large measure of responsibility for their son’s success, providing a music-rich environment for their children. At age 5, his parents started him on the violin. In the process of mastering that difficult instrument, he became adept at reading music, an ability that would prove critical in his professional development.

But Davis was not satisfied with the noble violin. Jazz was king in the 1930s, and nothing said jazz like the foggy purr of a saxophone. By the time he was 15, he was picking up priceless experience and starvation wages playing his new instrument of choice, the alto sax, at nightclubs around Youngstown. After graduating from high school, he took his horn on the road, traveling around the Midwest and upper South with various territorial bands and eventually landing a steady billet in New York City with popular bandleader Will Hudson. It was with Hudson’s group that he cut his first record — at age 19.

Two years later, Davis was picked up by NBC Studios in Chicago as one of six “utility” musicians who, among other things, backed up the procession of celebrity vocalists who routinely performed on the network’s radio broadcast. The job required extreme versatility because each of the six had to be prepared to cover for any missing member. This meant that Davis became proficient at the instruments of the other five; in one memorable instance, he learned to play the flute in just six hours.

In 1942, Davis mustered out of NBC and into the U.S. Army, which gave him his own orchestra — the 5th Service Command Band. For the next three years, he and his troops traveled the region playing military bases and “bond shows,” promoting the sale of war bonds. They also performed on “Hi, Yanks”, a weekly radio program broadcast out of Columbus.

Services

A Celebration of Life for Howard Davis will be held at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 16, at Evergreen Lutheran Church, 5980 Highway 73. The 16th would have been his 90th birthday.