Born: January 5, 1906 | Died: November 14, 1989 Primary Instrument: Cornet
Like a select group of other jazz instrumentalists, cornetist Wild Bill Davison had a talent that lives on long after his death. More than a decade after Davison died at the age of 83, record companies continue to reissue some of the more than 800 songs he recorded during his 70-year career. Jazz aficionados never tire of talking about some of the more memorable engagements played by the colorful Davison around the world.
Davison did not come by his lifelong nickname accidentally. He was a heavy drinker beginning in his teens and was known as a womanizer. Davison went through four wives before he finally got the knack of married life, settling down to a relatively monogamous relationship with his fifth wife--and love of his life--Anne Stewart. Heavy drinking and womanizing were the two most obvious characteristics that made Davison truly wild. He also enjoyed a reputation for playful antics and kleptomania as well.
In fact, given his wild streak, it's particularly amazing that Davison was a musician of such memorable ability. Beginning in childhood, he had displayed an unfailing ability to commit to memory every song he heard, and his natural ear for pitch amazed even his fellow musicians. It's equally amazing that even with a life of such excesses, Davison retained his musical abilities until the very end of his life. He practiced daily into his 80s and spent the final two decades of his life playing concert dates in Europe, where his music was extraordinarily popular.
William Edward Davison was born on January 5, 1906, in the northwest Ohio town of Defiance. The son of Edward Davison, an itinerant worker, and Anna Kreps Davison, a homemaker, he was raised by his maternal grandparents from the age of seven on. Davison displayed a love for music, as well as a natural ability to master musical instruments, at an early age. He first learned to play the mandolin, guitar, and banjo. He joined the Boy Scouts mostly because it provided an opportunity for him to learn the bugle. At age 12 he graduated from the bugle to the cornet. The sharper tones of the trumpet never really appealed to Davison, and he stayed with the cornet for the entirety of his musical career. His ear for music was so keen that after hearing a song only once he could reproduce its melody perfectly and elaborate on it with perfect chord progressions and harmonic improvisation. His ability to read music was limited, but it was a skill that he really did not need for the style of music that most interested him.
From his very early teens through the age of 17, Davison played with the Ohio Lucky Seven, an experience that helped to strengthen his musical skills. But, more importantly, he spent much of his spare time studying the playing styles of other horn players he admired. Among his early musical influences were Louis Panico, a trumpet soloist with the Isham Jones Orchestra, Bix Beiderbecke, and Louis Armstrong. From 1923 to 1925, Davison was the featured soloist with the Chubb-Steinberg Orchestra of Cincinnati, moving in 1926 to the Detroit- based Seattle Harmony Kings, with which he played until 1928. When not playing gigs with these groups, he led smaller jazz bands that he put together with musicians who enjoyed the same type of music as he did.
Davison earned an enviable reputation in Midwest jazz circles, eventually winning a featured solo position with Chicago's Benny Meroff Orchestra in 1928. The four-beat, swinging jazz that Davison and other white jazz musicians of the era were playing fell more into the category of swing than the two- beat Dixieland--or New Orleans style--jazz. It came to be known as Chicago-style jazz, mostly because it was a sound associated with jazz musicians in the Windy City. In the early 1930s, a number of Chicago area musicians--most notably jazz guitarist Eddie Condon--left the Midwest for New York City, taking with them the label of Chicago-style jazz.
Despite his obvious talent and formidable reputation as a jazz stylist, Davison stayed behind in the Midwest when many of his contemporaries from the region migrated to the big time in New York. Whether it was a lack of self-confidence or ambition that held him back is unclear, but for most of the 1930s he played clubs in Chicago and Milwaukee, rarely venturing outside the region. Leaving the Meroff Orchestra in 1931, Davison formed a 12-piece band of his own, building the ensemble around his cornet and the woodwind brilliance of Frank Teschemacher, who played both the clarinet and the alto saxophone. Based in Chicago, Davison's band quickly earned the admiration of fellow musicians, both white and black. Davison's moniker of Wild Bill, which accurately described the musician's lifestyle off the bandstand, was first used by a Chicago-area promoter who billed him as Wild Bill Davison, the White Louis Armstrong.
A tragic accident and labor troubles soon spelled disaster for the Chicago-based band that Davison had assembled and led. In March of 1932, a car he was driving was hit broadside, killing Davison's star woodwind soloist, Frank Teschemacher, who was a passenger in the vehicle. Not long thereafter troubles with the local union finished off Davison's band. He moved to Milwaukee and found work with a number of bands over the next several years. Davison earned a lasting memory of Milwaukee's reputation as the country's beer capital when he was hit in the mouth by a flying beer mug in 1939. Although Davison's wild side persisted in Milwaukee, his professional billing in the Wisconsin city touted him as Trumpet King. Perhaps he needed this period to build his self-confidence, but in 1941 he finally decided to head for New York, a destination that had lured many of the Midwest's best jazz musicians a decade earlier.
New York took Davison to its heart. He reestablished his relationship with Eddie Condon, whom he had met when both played with Benny Meroff in Chicago, and began playing dates at the city's hottest jazz clubs. From 1941 to 1942, he led the band at Nick's nightclub in Greenwich Village, and in 1943 took over the band at Jimmy Ryan's club on New York's famed Swing Street--52nd Street. He also collaborated in a Katherine Dunham production, recreating an original Dixieland jazz band.
Davison's first recordings of any note were made in the fall of 1943. Working with Condon's musicians but under his own name, he recorded 12 sides for Commodore Records. It was wartime and in December of 1943, Davison was drafted into the United States Army. Most of his time in the military was spent leading the band at the Grove Park Inn in the mountains of western North Carolina, a convalescent resort for injured soldiers. He remained active on the New York music scene, though, using weekend liberties to return to the city for occasional shows and recording sessions. In September of 1945, Davison was discharged from the military.
From the fall of 1945, when Eddie Condon's New York City jazz club opened, until the club was relocated in 1957, Davison led the house band and became the club's star attraction. The cornetist was at the peak of his musical powers in 1954 when he performed at the very first Newport Jazz Festival. Three years later, in 1957, Davison made his first two concert tours of Europe, earning a warm reception from European fans who seemed particularly appreciative of his style. The mid 1950s proved a particularly positive period for Davison--both professionally and personally. In 1954 he married his fifth and final wife, actress Anne Stewart, a pairing that finally gave him a degree of stability he had not known earlier. His previous four marriages had all ended in divorce or annulment.
Davison continued to play professionally throughout the remainder of his life but played mostly with other bands instead of leading his own. Two exceptions came in 1968 and 1969 when he led his Giants of Jazz on concert tours. In the last two decades of his life there was a sharp increase in Davison's touring outside the United States, particularly in Japan and Europe, where audiences were particularly receptive to his jazz style and sound. His death in 1989 at the age of 83 came after surgery for an abdominal aneurysm, performed shortly after his return from a concert tour to Japan. Davis was cremated, and his ashes were buried in his hometown of Defiance.
Davison's distinctive rasping, driving, forceful sound--not unlike his reputation as a wild man--was only one side of this jazz great. He was capable of great sensitivity and sensuousness when playing ballads and madcap mischief and vulgarity with numbers of a humorous nature.
Wild Bill, the man to whom Louis Armstrong once declared, Bill, if anything ever happens to me, I know you can keep on doing what I'm doing. He built his career playing in Chicago nightspots during the roaring '20s, and in the '40s and '50s he joined Eddie Condon s famed house band in New York City, where he became known as a commanding front man and a brash, intense lead cornetist.
Over the course of a career that spanned seven decades and 21 countries, Wild Bill recorded 800 songs and played with world-class jazz stars like Bix Beiderbecke, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong. Wild Bill loved tunes from impassioned ballads to full-steam-ahead, high-stepping romps.