James Davis Jr. is Director of Music Ministries & Fine Arts at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. Well-versed in a wide variety of musical styles, he has supervised productions at Radio City Music Hall, Lincoln Center, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Apollo Theater. He has also produced and arranged music for both film and television, including Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer and a State Farm Insurance commercial commemorating the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, and has collaborated with legendary artists including Ashford & Simpson, Alicia Keys, Jessye Norman, John Legend, Lyle Lovett, Richard Smallwood and Wynton Marsalis.
Davis will be conducting the renowned Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir in a performance at the Fall Conference of CT ACDA on October 29, 2016.
I recently had an opportunity to speak with him about his work. The following are some excerpts from that interview:
Please tell me about your musical background and major influencers.
I began playing piano by ear at age three and started formal training at around age seven or eight with H E Marshall. The first hour of the lesson would be as any piano lesson — the classical method — Scales, arpeggios, etudes, etc. and standard piano repertoire (i.e. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc.). But the 2nd hour would be a different genre, usually improvisatory. Either jazz, gospel, RnB/pop, etc. So it was a holistic approach to music. I finished high school and entered Morehouse College in Atlanta as a mathematics/engineering major. Because I needed scholarship money, I ended up being accompanist for the Glee Club under Dr. David Morrow. It was probably from my experiences with the Glee Club that I got the conducting ‘bug.’
My most significant influencers were as follows:
1) My first music teacher, H. E. Marshall, who could play seemingly anything. Marshall was classically trained but played jazz piano like Art Tatum.
3) David Oliver, College Organist at Morehouse, who was my organ teacher
Can you please describe your philosophy and values as a conductor?
Ellington said it most accurately: “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.” So then it should follow, there are simply two kinds of musicians, and I strive to be a good musician. For me, that means we strive for excellence in all that we do. No matter the composer or the genre, the standard is excellence.
What advice do you have for inexperienced conductors?
You learn conducting by doing it. Try to find some vocal ensemble, even if you have to assemble a small group of friends. Maybe prepare a meal for them if you cannot pay them monetarily. Also, acquaint yourself with the literature. Score study, in other words.
What resources do you recommend for conductors who are interested in learning more about gospel music, spirituals, and other African-American singing traditions?
My top recommendations are “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. DuBois, which includes an entire chapter on spirituals; and Volumes 1 & 2 of “Readings in African American Worship” by James Abbington.
What are some of your favorite choral works and composers?
Please share something about yourself that is unrelated to music.
I love science, especially the physical sciences. I try to keep up with the latest discoveries in astrophysics. String theory is of particular interest.
This interview is also published on the CT ACDA blog.
To learn more about James Davis Jr. and his production company, JDJ Music inc., please visit jdjmusic.com.
Information about the Music Ministry of Abyssinian Baptist Church is available here.