Adjunct jazz professor Duane Davis wins prestigious Ellis Marsalis, Jr. Educator of the Year Award

Contact: Brandi Engel
A group photo

Duane Davis, second from left, accepts the 2024 Ellis Marsalis, Jr. Educator of the Year Award in New Orleans. (Photo courtesy Rene Huemer)

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Duane Shields Davis, a legendary jazz educator with over 50 years of experience, has been named the 2024 Ellis Marsalis, Jr. Educator of the Year by the Jazz Education Network.

Davis, originally from Cleveland, Ohio, has dedicated over half a century to teaching and advancing jazz education. He has instructed at renowned institutions including the Irving S. Gilmore School of Music at Western Michigan University, Grand Rapids Public Schools, Grand Rapids Community College and Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.

Davis has been a part of the Irving S. Gilmore School of Music at WMU for over 30 years, spending most of these at the helm of Gold Company II (GCII). Under Davis’s leadership and care, GCII has long prepared students and aspiring professionals for Gold Company, WMU’s award-winning vocal jazz ensemble now in its 46th year. The international recognition and prestige that Gold Company enjoys, first under Steve Zegree’s leadership and now under the direction of Greg Jasperse, would not have been possible without the impact of Duane Davis. In addition to directing GCII, Duane regularly stepped up to direct Gold Company during Zegree’s sabbaticals. Davis returned to lead Gold Company again in fall 2023 during Jasperse’s sabbatical. 

Davis leads Gold Company. (Photo courtesy Rene Huemer)

"Duane is the unsung hero behind the success of our vocal jazz program. His impact on students is immeasurable," says Jasperse.  When he nominated Davis for this prestigious award, a call for letters of support was met with vigorous support. Letters from Janis Siegel (Manhattan Transfer), all of the New York Voices, Western alum Blake Morgan (Voces8), as well as high school and college educators around the world affirmed the significance of this nomination.   

For 31 years, Davis has also served as Chorus Master for Opera Grand Rapids. His accolades include the Legacy Award from the Grand Rapids Symphony and the Maynard Klein Award for Choral Excellence from the American Choral Directors Association of Michigan.

Ensembles under Davis’ direction have toured across the United States and performed internationally in Europe, Asia, Canada and the Bahamas. He has conducted at Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, Alice Tully Hall, as well as the Kennedy Center and more.

The Ellis Marsalis, Jr. Award recognizes educators who demonstrate excellence in jazz teaching and mentoring, bringing distinction to their programs and students. It’s also fitting that Davis receive the Ellis Marsalis Jr. because he, like Marsalis, is the father of two very accomplished professional jazz musicians.  Both graduates of WMU, Xavier Davis, B.A.'94, is now an associate professor of jazz piano at Michigan State University. Quincy Davis, B.A.'99, is a professor of jazz drumset at the University of North Texas. Following in their father’s footsteps as educators, they have also played with the biggest names in jazz—Cecile McLorin-Salvant, Christian McBride, Regina Carter, Roy Hargrove, Buster Williams, Freddie Hubbard, Nat Adderly and Abby Lincoln to name a few. 

“I was humbled and honored to receive the award. In reading (Jasperse's) nomination letter and more than 15 letters of support, I was even more humbled,” says Davis.

Davis accepted the award at the Jazz Education Network’s annual conference in New Orleans in January 2024, where Gold Company also performed under his direction.

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