Robert "Bobby" M. Davidson, a retired Western Michigan University faculty member known locally as the "godfather of jazz," died June 3 at Rose Arbor Hospice in Kalamazoo. He was 93.
Davidson, of Kalamazoo, joined the WMU faculty in 1952 as a part-time percussion instructor and retired in 1983 as assistant professor emeritus of music after more than 30 years of service to the University. He is credited with developing the fully accredited Jazz Studies Program at WMU after he founded the highly successful University Jazz Lab Band.
In 1982 the Jazz Lab Band was invited to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, and the same year, the University's music school honored Davidson as the "Godfather of Jazz" in recognition of his service to WMU. A more far-reaching accolade followed in 1991, when the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo presented him with an Irving S. Gilmore Community Medal of Arts Award for his lifelong contribution and commitment to the perpetuation of the arts in the community.
Davidson, a professional percussionist since 1937, played big band as well as jazz music and was a member of the renowned U.S. Air Force Show Band. Early in his career, he played in the Fox Davidson Orchestra in Kalamazoo and at Club Hollywood, also in Kalamazoo, as well as served as drummer for the Anson Weeks Orchestra when it went on the road.
He initially enlisted in the Air Force as a pilot in 1942, but his musical skills prompted officials to ask him to stay on post with the orchestra at the Aviation Cadet Center in San Antonio. Davidson returned to Kalamazoo in late 1945 and formed the Bobby Davidson Orchestra, which at the time was the only all-GI orchestra in the country.
The band remained intact performing most weekends both locally and in adjacent states for the next 46 years. Many in the community remember dancing to the band at popular venues in the area and enjoying its music as it accompanied The Hi Lows, Pat Boone, Bob Hope and other visiting performers.
A memorial gathering will take place from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday, June 28, in the Life Story Funeral Home, Betzler–Kalamazoo, 6080 Stadium Drive. Services will be held at 1 p.m. Friday, June 29, in Betzler-Kalamazoo. A reception will follow.
Memorial gifts may be made to the WMU Foundation for the jazz studies program or Rose Arbor Hospice. Visit lifestorynet.com to make a memorial guestbook entry.