Lonnie and Ocie Davis have built Charlotte’s Jazz Arts Initiative into a musical force

Lonnie Davis, President of the Jazz Arts Initiative, and husband Ocie Davis, the Artistic Director.
Lonnie Davis, President of the Jazz Arts Initiative, and husband Ocie Davis, the Artistic Director. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

In the hundred-year history of jazz, probably no one has tried to create a large-scale masterwork performed by a flutist and a percussionist – until now.

Woodwind player Lonnie Davis sets the bold melody; husband Ocie Davis provides a backbeat to underpin her. They’ve improvised for nearly six years on Jazz Arts Initiative, and they’re hitting their stride.

JAI sponsors popular monthly concerts at Stage Door Theater that feature the likes of trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, who’ll blow Thursday on behalf of Duke Ellington.

The Initiative offers workshops and summer camps – some of which end in a concert after only one week – and produces students so talented that local professionals play with them.

JAI’s goal, says Lonnie, is “an audacious one: I’d like for us to be regarded as one of the significant arts groups in Charlotte, up there with the opera and symphony and ballet. Charlotte deserves that kind of jazz organization.”

Charlotte has long been parched for jazz programming: The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art runs the only other consistent jazz series. But who’s to say what Lonnie Davis imagines can’t happen?

Not Ocie, who once commuted from Charlotte to New Orleans to take drumming gigs while Lonnie moved JAI forward. “She’s the engine for this organization,” he says. “I’m supporting her, but her energy got this off the ground.”

We can attribute the first 125 mph push to Hurricane Katrina, which blew them out of New Orleans in 2005.

“We lived in Algiers, on the West Bank,” Lonnie says. “Our house had a lot of roof damage, but my family lost everything. My grandmother in the Lower Ninth had water 14 feet high in her house. We knew it would be tough to (stay). Nobody would go into the city to listen to music.”

She attended grad school at Virginia Tech, where Ocie taught as an adjunct for a year. They needed a bigger city and found one in Charlotte. They took a while to figure out the bigger city needed them, too.

“Jazz is not a natural fit for our civic personality,” she says. “Charlotte likes structure, cleanliness. Jazz is messy and unpredictable. So for us, this is the perfect town to create something.”

Building from scratch

Lonnie worked at Music and Arts Center, then became registrar at Community School of the Arts. Ocie taught there and “went around the city gigging,” especially in his combo The Queen’s Collective. Lonnie might have grown a jazz program at the school. But as she washed dishes one night, she “had a light bulb moment at the sink.”

Says Ocie, “She told me she wanted to start a jazz nonprofit. My first thought? ‘We have to make a living.’”

Says Lonnie, “He didn’t get it right away, but he supported my excitement.”

Adds Ocie, “We had no money, so we approached people (through) relationships. We got the godfather of jazz, Bill Hanna, which gave us credibility.”

They assembled a board. They analyzed similar groups and read national audience studies. JAI musicians debuted at Festival in the Park in fall 2010, and Chad Lawson’s trio played the first Stage Door tribute (honoring pianist Bill Evans) in April 2013. That series eventually became a partnership with Blumenthal Performing Arts.

“Lonnie really started to get my attention a year or so ago,” says Blumenthal President Tom Gabbard. “I saw her selling out her concerts, adding performances and selling those out.

“Her success is no accident. The depth of her knowledge and good taste is really evident. She's proving that, when the programming is right, and it is smartly presented, we can grow audiences.”

Inspiring younger players

The Davises think not only about today’s music but tomorrow’s musicians. So they founded four levels of classes – the highest is an all-star band that represents JAI in concerts – that reach about 30 students.

A recent Sunday found kids at Providence Presbyterian Church, making the hippest music its Fellowship Hall and clerical offices may ever have heard.

Carl Ratliff, who teaches band at South Charlotte Middle School, was putting Level One through its diffident paces. “I’m working with a chord progression; once we create that, we aim for a melody,” he said. “That takes a lot of listening.

“We begin with a little theory. They hear a lot of notes coming from the giants in jazz, and they need to understand the relationships between those notes. I’d really like them to understand the history and culture of this music, too.”

In an adjacent room, trumpeter and UNC Charlotte assistant professor Michael Hackett was refining the All-Stars. “Their interest at this level is to work professionally, and some of them could,” he says.

“One conundrum in our business is that we all aspire to be full-time musicians, and almost none of us are. I left a 20-year freelancing career to get a doctorate and support my wife and kids. I was taught you never rely on solely one thing: You play jazz, classical, you compose or arrange. We’re giving them real-life experience and preparing them to sacrifice, if they’re willing.”

Chords that resonate

Two candidates among the All-Stars, pianist Sean Mason and saxophonist Veronica Leahy, lead the pack. He won the 2014 Loonis McGlohon Young Jazz Artist Competition, sponsored by JAI and the Blumenthal; she finished second.

“Music has been in my blood,” says Mason, a 17-year-old junior at Philip O. Berry Academy of Technology who started out singing in church and school choirs and played brass in middle school band. “In the summer of eighth grade, my grandmother invested in a piano, and I chased Ray Charles’ sound; I admired his soul.

“By 10th grade, I was just listening to jazz. I went deep into the shed, got deeply into theory. I could practice three or four hours a day at home, but playing in the All-Star Band is so different: We feed off each other. We don’t talk, except through our instruments.”

Leahy, 14, an eighth-grader who has written for her Charlotte Latin School band, says she “started playing classical music, then picked up the jazz sax in fifth grade and really bore down. I’d like to go back and forth between jazz and classical someday.

“I joined JAI last summer, and it boosted my playing. It’s cool to hang with guys who have more experience, and I’ve come to know the local jazz community. We gigged at Stage Door before Jeremy Davenport, and combo directors treat us as if we were professionals.”

A grand vision

Now that the Stage Door series makes JAI a resident company at the Blumenthal, Lonnie Davis looks ahead to increased classes and workshops, more concerts, a full-scale jazz festival. (She calls last October’s Charlotte Classic Jazz Festival “a trial run for something more significant.”)

She and Ocie both now draw salaries from JAI, she as president and he as artistic director. A banner outside their office in Spirit Square proclaims JAI’s existence.

Ever-practical Ocie says his “main goal is still to make people love this art form ... and provide an entrepreneurial experience for young musicians.”

Lonnie says simply, “I’m trying to be a mirror for all the great experiences I’ve had, the education and performance opportunities. I love this music first of all.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

The Jazz Room

This monthly series of concerts at Stage Door Theater, Fifth and College streets, kicks off Thursday at 7 p.m. with “Delfeayo Marsalis Plays Duke Ellington.” Tickets to see the trombone player, who shared a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award with other family members, cost $25 and $35. 704-372-1000; blumenthalarts.org.

Most Jazz Room concerts begin at 6 and 8:15 p.m. and cost $12 in advance or $15 at the door. Saxophonist Greg Jarrell plays Gerry Mulligan May 15, saxophonist John Ellis plays Sonny Rollins June 18, pianist Ryan Hanseler plays Thelonious Monk July 17, trombonist Mitch Butler plays J.J. Johnson Aug. 21, and Sasha Masakowski sings Antonio Carlos Jobim and the music of Brazil on Sept. 18.

More info: thejazzarts.org; 704-336-9350; info@thejazzarts.org.

Lonnie and Ocie Davis

Family: Lonnie is 37, Ocie is 46. They married in 2003 and have two daughters, Ishan, 17, (“a natural writer,” says her mom) and Aamori, 9 (“a natural musician”).

Hometowns: She’s from New Orleans; he’s from Los Angeles. They moved to the Steele Creek neighborhood of Charlotte in 2006.

Where they met: Ellis Marsalis’ jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans in 1996. “We were in the concert band together,” Ocie recalls. “I sat at the back, she sat at the front, and I saw her walk past me every day. I started taking flute lessons to meet her.”

Fun facts: She fronts The Lonnie Davis Quartet on flute when she can find time; she also has a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in music and graduate work in urban and regional planning. He has played with pianist Ellis Marsalis, trumpeters Terence Blanchard and Christian Scott, multi-instrumentalist Nicholas Payton and saxophonist Donald Harrison, who called him “one of the premiere drummers in jazz.”