EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally published back in 2006. It’s still a fascinating read.
Welcome to the second installment of our Grumpy Old Men series, wherein we learn from our elders and soak up their salty yarns like Bounty Quicker Picker-Upper. Yesterday we had Robert Christgau, today Francis Davis. Tomorrow? The Pope. What’s that you say? You never heard of Francis Davis. Oh buddy, it’s good thing you found us! Check out his CV:
He has written about music, film, and other aspects of popular culture for The Atlantic since 1984 and was appointed lead jazz critic for the Voice in 2004. He was jazz critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1982 to 1996, jazz editor of Musician from 1982 to 1985, and a staff writer for 7 Days from 1988 to 1990. His work has also appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Arts & Leisure and Book Review sections, The Nation, Connoisseur, Rolling Stone, Wigwag, The Oxford American, Stereo Review Sound & Vision, High Fidelity, the Boston Phoenix, The Absolute Sound, ARTicles, Cadence, Down Beat, Jazz Times, Elle, Audio, The World & I, The Wire, The Black American, the Village Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly, The Washington Post Book World, The New York Times Book Review, and The Times Literary Supplement (London).
Yow! He is also married to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. We talked to him about his 10-years-in-the-making John Coltrane bio, Sheets of Sound, what it’s like to get beaten up and thrown in the hoosegow by the Philly cops for being a smartass hippie back in the Sixties, and who’s on top in bed. Just kidding. He wouldn’t answer that question.
PHAWKER: Say your name please…
FRANCIS DAVIS: Francis Davis.
PHAWKER: You’re Philly-born and -bred. Lived here your whole life.
FRANCIS DAVIS: Yeah.
PHAWKER: Where’d you grow up?
FRANCIS DAVIS: Southwest Philadelphia. Around 58th and Elmwood Ave.
PHAWKER: And what kinda neighborhood was that back then?
FRANCIS DAVIS: At the time it was a very ethnic, Catholic neighborhood: Italian, Irish and Polish. In fact, many of the kids who I went to school with who were Polish still had parents who spoke, you know, Polish. Spoke Polish? Is there such a language? [laughs]
PHAWKER: Are you Irish stock 100%?
FRANCIS DAVIS: No. But Celtic. I guess my father was Welsh.
PHAWKER: And your mom?
FRANCIS DAVIS: Irish. Very Irish.
PHAWKER: And where did you go to high school?
FRANCIS DAVIS: Bartram. It was an integrated high school, which was very rare in Philly at the time. Well, I believe, anyway. And this would have been 1964 when I graduated. So not only was it very integrated, it was also the height of the civil rights era. So it was kind, of you know, hip for black kids to invite white kids to the parties and vice versa. Not that I, you know, threw any parties myself. We also had a great influx of Jewish kids, and then we even had an Indian kid, who wore, you know, a turban. And the black kids used to call it his doo-rag. So you know, I think now to find such a high school you’d have to watch a television show. I mean I think they’re only high schools like that on TV. And we had, like, hoods and National Merit Scholars.
PHAWKER: And is that what first opened you to black culture and music and things like that?
FRANCIS DAVIS: Well, to jazz, in a way. At that time there was a commercial jazz station in Philadelphia: WHAT-FM. In those days, not everybody had a FM radio yet, you know. And certainly kids’ radios tended to be transistors, which were little AM radios. So the hip thing to do was to listen to FM. In particular to listen to WHAT-FM, the jazz station, 96.5 I recall. So it probably was black kids who first taught me about that, including a kid I went to school with who was Bill Cosby’s cousin.
PHAWKER: How old were you?
FRANCIS DAVIS: Seventeen. I was reading Saturday Review and Evergreen Review and things like that. And they covered jazz in those days. There was a critic that I liked named Martin Williams, who I especially liked who also wrote for Evergreen Review and Saturday Review. Because I was reading poetry I knew about the then-named Leroi Jones, who, you know, I knew him as a poet before I knew him as a jazz writer or jazz critic. But anyway, it was a short step from reading them and those magazines to buying Down Beat and a magazine called Jazz and so on … and I noticed there were people I was reading about who weren’t being played on that station. So I would save my pennies, sometimes literally, and buy, usually cut out records that were on sale for $1.98 or so by Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman. So between that station and stuff I was buying I was hearing lots of stuff. And that’s how I started.
PHAWKER: And what got you into reading these fairly mature literary magazines as a teenager?
FRANCIS DAVIS: I don’t know. I always read. When I was a kid I was never treated like a kid in my family. In the house where I was growing up, I was the only male in an otherwise female household with my mother, my grandmother and an aunt. In some ways I was a little bit spoiled. My grandmother lost her son in World War II and I was named after him. And in some ways, this is sort of a a black concept, in some ways I was the replacement child for her. And also because grandmothers spoil ya anyway. But the person I was named after was smart. He was the only person in the family that had graduated from high school. Because I had his name, it was just assumed that I would be smart, too. There were never kids books around, per se. So the books I read when I was a kid were, you know, the same things my mom was reading. Which meant a lot of Mickey Spillane. I was fascinated by the look of type on a page. When I would write stuff on my own, if it wasn’t for school, I would get a piece of loose leaf paper, which was wide ruled, and do two lines in each one because it looked more squished together, like typeface.
So, you know, I was just interested in writing. My senior year in high school I got a job at the Free Library branch at 51st and Kensington. Essentially it was a minimum wage thing where you put books away. That was all you were allowed to do if you weren’t union. But during the summer it was a dream job because hardly anybody came into the library. So there’d be three or four to put away and then I had all the time in the world to read. And I could also check any book out that I wanted and not have to worry about bringing it back. There was one stretch in particular when I was a senior in high school. Right around the time of the Kennedy assassination. My grandmother died not long after that. And there were a lot of arrangements to be made. Relatives were coming from different places and nobody was paying much attention to whether I went to school or not, so I would just stay home and read. And I know that in my senior year of high school and the beginning of freshman year of college, I read probably 90 percent of everything I’ve ever read. [Laughs] That’s when I read Lolita, The Invisible Man, Rabbit, Run, etc. Pretty much everything Norman Mailer had published up to that point. And I was just digesting all this. And I was just reading these things the way people watched television shows, you know. And also not having to do papers on them or anything or discuss them in class. Again, I probably started reading say, Saturday Review, because a writer who I had read and liked was on the cover. And Evergreen I started reading because in the very first issue Norman Mailer had a piece in there. And I was kinda obsessed with Mailer back then. Especially the way he wrote about writing, how he changed this word and replaced it with another word because it was more masculine, and so on. So I started to write a novel myself. It was more or less The Great Gatsby, but with teenagers, you know?
PHAWKER: What was it called?
FRANCIS DAVIS: It had various titles. The one I remember was Let Him Be Foolish. Never finished it, by the way. It started out as a short story and became a never-ending novel. It just got longer and longer. I’m glad it no longer exists.
PHAWKER: So then you went to Temple?
FRANCIS DAVIS: Yeah, yeah. I started at Penn State. Then I went to Temple.
PHAWKER: Oh, freshman year you went to Penn State?
FRANCIS DAVIS: Yeah then I transferred to Temple. You know, Penn State seemed too rural to me. I had never been out of the city in my life. And I was used to having, like, a newsstand at ever corner. At Penn State there weren’t even corners. I used to get lost trying to find a classroom that I had just been to a few days before .
PHAWKER: There’s no grid to follow.
FRANCIS DAVIS: Yeah, to orient myself. It was also, at least in the fall of 1964, Penn State was overwhelmingly white. And suddenly I was with all these kids from small towns from Philadelphia who were the most casually racist people. They were not bad people, but the racism was just something I wasn’t used to.
PHAWKER: And what was this sort of racial mix at Temple?
FRANCIS DAVIS: Well, it was still largely white. I had classes that didn’t have a single black person in them, for example. But it wasn’t quite like Penn State. And I guess gradually it got more integrated. It’s funny, I think sometimes there’s this perception of Temple having a much larger black enrollment than it does because it’s in North Philadelphia and because of the basketball team and because of WRTI, the jazz station. But it was predominantly white when I got there. But I don’t think, outside of a historically black college, that there would have been a college I could have gone to that wouldn’t have been predominately white at the time.
PHAWKER: Tell me a little bit about what you remember of white flight in the city and how the whole city changed in that whole time period you described.
FRANCIS DAVIS: Well I never witnessed it. It was just a fait accompli. If I went back to my neighborhood today, you know, it would be completely black. I should clarify: there’s West Philadelphia and there’s Southwest Philadelphia. Back then it was very Italian, so much so that if you weren’t Italian… (laughs). Forget being black. If you were Irish or Polish you were taking your chances walking through there. Cause there were always great rivalry between the Italian kids and the Irish kids. But you know, within a few years those neighborhoods were black, predominately black. But it’s not like I witnessed it. I was gone by then.
PHAWKER: Your dad is out of the picture?
FRANCIS DAVIS: Yeah, yeah, I never really knew my father.
PHAWKER: Do you recall that big race riot that happened in North Philly in ’64? From what I’ve read it was crazy. It went on for three days!
FRANCIS DAVIS: Yeah yeah. Well, you have to remember that it seemed, between that and the next year, that there were riots all over the place.
PHAWKER: What was your reaction to all of that?
FRANCIS DAVIS: Well, dismay. Dismay. And I wouldn’t have been able to articulate why at the time. But I think looking back everybody had a sense, that the civil rights movement was relinquishing the high ground. Relinquishing the moral high ground. And certainly I think in retrospect, whatever other benefits it had, that was also true of Black Power. I mean, the moral high ground is very important. I couldn’t articulate it any better at the time. But, you know, sadness. But also comprehension. The Phillies’ ballpark used to be at 21st and Lehigh. So, I’d seen enough of North Philadelphia to know why people were fed up. I don’t know if it was smart to do what they were doing, nevertheless I could understand, you know?
PHAWKER: Okay, so you graduated from Temple.
FRANCIS DAVIS: No, I never graduated. I dropped out. After about five years. [laughs] It was the Sixties. That’s how I usually explain it.
PHAWKER: Ok. Tell me, when did you get Sixties-fied?
Francis Davis: Well, I dunno. Just in terms of the academic career. I had a habit all along of only paying attention to and going to classes that I was good in and blowing off the rest. And you know, essentially I was very good in the English courses, the history, political science, and religion courses, because mostly what you did in religion was read novels anyway, you know. Temple had a great religion department back then, by the way. I believe it was the first secular religious department in the United States. It was headed by a guy who turned out not to be all what he was cracked up to be, named Phillips, I think his first name was Bernard. But he was DT Suzuki’s translator. Suzuki is the guy who exploited…the Salinger collection Nine Stories. He was pretty lofty academically, but he wasn’t a good classroom teacher. But they had great people in the department. I remember a guy named Murray Goldman who was, in addition to being a religious professor, he was a Jungian psychiatrist, a rabbi and a songwriter, you know, who wrote songs for a short lived band that had Kevin Bacon’s brother in it. It was called Good News. So Murray would be in class and he’d quote like George Santayana and Otis Redding in the same sentence. That blew me away.
PHAWKER: But you dropped out..
FRANCIS DAVIS: I dropped out. It’s sort of like I dropped out gradually. I stopped going to classes and then I didn’t enroll for the next semester. And I was able to get a job in a bookstore. It’s not like we had a lot of money in my house, so that helped. And it’s not like I thought of…this is a long digression and I won’t get into the details, but I got arrested one night in 1968.
PHAWKER: C’mon, it’ll up your street cred.
FRANCIS DAVIS: Well, I got arrested essentially for questioning the cops. We were in West Philly at the time. They were stopping people and searching people who they thought looked ‘suspicious’ and very often that translated into anyone with long hair, really, cause they thought they’d get a drug bust or whatever. So, I actually got along really well with the cop who stopped me and searched me, we were kinda joking together, I think we smoked a cigarette together or something.
PHAWKER: You had long hair?
FRANCIS DAVIS: Yeah. So I made the strategic mistake of calling the precinct and complaining about the policy when I got home. Because the cop had more or less told me that’s what the policy was. So they sent cops to my door. And there was this whole charade of like, ‘Did somebody here call for the police?’
‘No, I called the police station.’
‘But did somebody here call for the police?’
‘No, I called the police station.’
And so on and they kept inching their way in the house. I probably wise-cracked or something. And they beat me up. And if they touch you they have to charge you with assault and battery. It was a bad case because they had charged me with assault and battery — ‘aggravated A and B’ as they put it — you know, on a police officer, but they forgot to charge me with anything else. So it’s just like, ‘So what happened? You just went up to a cop and started punching him? That’s hard to believe.’ But anyway, that night, my mother in a panic called a lot of people including my boss at the book store and my Uncle Frank the truck driver, and one of my professors, who called two other professors from Temple, so they were all there at my arraignment.
PHAWKER: So what happened? Did the case get dropped?
FRANCIS DAVIS: Yeah. I’ll tell you what was really funny. One of my character witnesses was to be one of my professors, who as it turned out had gotten arrested for picketing Hubert Humphrey because he wasn’t radical enough — boy, those were the days. Anyway, weird twist of fate, his arraignment is the case right before mine. And the judge was not very sharp, definitely a patronage hire. He had a hard time trying to keep everybody straight standing before him in the courtroom. And he points to my professor. ‘And who are you?’ And Henry had just been sentenced by him, just a few minutes prior. Like you know, a fine or something. So he says ‘I’m his professor.’ And the judge says, ‘Professor, huh? I just had a professor in front of me and I found him guilty.’
PHAWKER: And he didn’t even recognize him? Was this guy senile or he didn’t see that well or what?
FRANCIS DAVIS: Senile.
PHAWKER: Turns out, justice is blind. Just to clarify: the cops worked their way into the house and you were being cocky and what? One of the cops just punched you in the face?
FRANCIS DAVIS: Yeah. Of course I didn’t hit them back.
PHAWKER: So how much of a beating did you get? Was it more than one punch?
FRANCIS DAVIS: Yeah.
PHAWKER: They beat on you for a while?
FRANCIS DAVIS: Yeah.
PHAWKER: And then took you off in handcuffs. And charged you for assault and battery. God bless America.
FRANCIS DAVIS: It’s tough being in the paddy wagon in handcuffs because there’s nothing to hold on to.
PHAWKER: Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard about that.
FRANCIS DAVIS: You’re banging around every turn and stop. [Laughing] And you just pray they locked that back door.
End of Part One. Tomorrow: John Coltrane, Sun Ra, climbing to the top of the jazz crit-ocracy and meeting a cute little feminist radiohead named Terry.