Arts Listings

Davis Brings Standards, Spirituals to Anna’s

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday July 27, 2007

“I know thousands of songs,” says singer Cynthia Davis, who will perform a special matinee of jazz standards and negro spirituals this Sunday at Anna’s Jazz Island. “But I seldom sat down and learned one. I learned them from the old movies; we used to go twice a week in the old days. When I sing a song, I go back to the scene in the movie. Songs in musicals were written to tell stories. 

“And now that I’m trying to write my life as a theater performance, I’ll have to allude to those movie scenes.” 

Davis, a former longtime Berkeley resident, who taught at the New School in San Francisco and sang at “different clubs around the Santa Fe Bar and Grill,” besides doing an outdoor concert at UC in the ’80s set up by her dancer niece Maya, now lives and sings in Cancun, Mexico. 

“In 1996, I had a sabbatical from the New School, and visited Spain and London,” Davis recalled. “A friend suggested I speak at the school in Cancun; I was invited to teach for three months. That was 11 years ago!” 

She’s sung at the Ritz-Carleton and Maroma Hotels, at the Cancun Jazz Festival (on bills with such acts as Sister Sledge and Diana Krall) and at a club, Roots, “where every night I was introduced as ‘Cynthia Davis, the Golden Voice of Jazz!’” 

Her audiences in Cancun are a mix of local Mexicans and tourists. “People tell people they meet at Immigration to come see me. When I visited Cuba and went to an expensive tourist jazz club, just to take a look, a man said, ‘Hey, I know you!’ I thought it was a pick-up line. But he had a video of me advertising the jazz festival! He invited me and my friends in.” 

She works with a Mexican pianist and a Cuban guitarist. “I don’t scat very much; my guitarist does the scatting,” she said. 

“If I leave Cancun,” Davis said, “people email me and get me back. But I miss Berkeley so much. It’s the only place I could live in the U.S. If I could spend six months in each place, it would be perfect. But the rents here are so high.” 

She moved to Berkeley decades ago, after graduating from Antioch College. “All my Antioch friends had moved to Berkeley. It was a perfect transition.”  

She was reunited with one of them when Loni Hancock knocked on her door, canvassing the neighborhood while running for mayor. Hancock requested that Davis sing at her wedding to Tom Bates. And Davis found herself repeating the same set of songs—twice—at their classmate Karen Jacobs’ house for a party to which Hancock and Bates came late. “I sang it again for them as they held hands and listened.” 

Born in Newport News, Vir., Davis is African American but also Cherokee and Blackfoot, French, Irish, Jewish and Portuguese. Her grandmother was a singer at churches and weddings, appearing once on the Ed Sullivan Show before moving from New York to Newport News to care for her aunt. 

Davis began singing at 6 in a school choir, and at 12 became featured soloist at her high school. Her choir director featured her in a Friday night talent show, rehearsing her in the empty auditorium. “I came out to sing ‘Ebb tide’ and almost fell down. That empty auditorium had 5,000 people in it! So I leaned on the piano for support—and people said, ‘Ooo, she’s got an act!’” 

Later, smaller audiences would make her nervous: “I could see everybody’s face! I was so used to singing in front of large groups, I didn’t think I’d make it through the concert.” 

She was featured every Friday night for five years. Later, Davis was chosen to sing negro spirituals “at everybody’s funeral. I sing them Marian Anderson style. And a capella when I can. I didn’t come from a gospel church.” After moving to Berkeley, Terence Kelly asked her to join the Oakland Gospel Choir. 

Davis has taught “since I was 12. Later, I joined the Future Teachers of America.” At one point, she improvised what would later be termed conflict resolution for 4- and 5-year-olds. Now she is a storyteller two hours a week at a Cancun private school. 

Reflecting on growing up in Virginia during segregation, Davis said, “It was a very polite segregation in Newport News. But our 250 voice choir, with a brilliant director who should’ve been at Juilliard, never won an award. I feel I had an advantage, though, because my mother was a teacher and my father directed a black bank. I seldom rode the bus, but when I did, I sat in front! They weren’t going to stop the bus for that. But my mother would say, ‘I’m going to have to bail you out of jail!’—and I’d say, ‘Yes, you will!’ All my life I bucked the system.” 

Both her parents had gone to college at Hampton Institute, “but that was too close, which is why I went to Antioch”—which finally brought her to Berkeley. 

Davis stopped singing once, but found “I have to sing. Not just to entertain, but because it has something I need. I love sad songs; they get the sadness out. It’s good they’re bringing sad stories back. Otherwise, people put the sadness into anger.” 

“I didn’t really learn how to sing,” Davis concluded, “just placement and how to breathe. I’ve sung all my life. If you ask me how, I’ll tell you to pick a song you love, learn it backwards and forwards, and sing it with all your heart—then get it out there! Then come to me, and I’ll help you.”