Caroline Davis
Caroline Davis Credit: Josh Hawkins

Caroline Davis had been a saxophonist for nearly 20 years before she decided to focus her energies on playing jazz full-time. For more than a decade Davis, 31, was an academic first and foremost, but after earning her PhD from Northwestern University in 2010, she began cultivating her talent in earnest—and it’s blossomed spectacularly. Her first album as a leader, Live Work & Play, comes out early next month, and it reveals her to be one of the city’s strongest and most exciting jazz saxophonists. Mike Allemana, longtime guitarist for the late, great saxophonist Von Freeman, plays in Davis’s quartet on that record, and he’s had front-row seats for her rapid development: “It seemed like every week she was advancing leaps and bounds.”

Davis picked up the saxophone at 12 and was soon playing in her junior high jazz band. A teacher turned her onto Louis Armstrong, but it wasn’t until college that Davis started to get her head around the depth and complexity of the music. “I played in my high school big band, but I didn’t understand the improvising part,” she says. “If I played solos I would write them out so I could sound good at that one moment.”

If she had to write down all of the solos she plays on Live Work & Play, she’d need a ream of staff paper. The title describes her current relationship to jazz—it’s life, work, and play all at once. She covers rent on the sparse Ukrainian Village apartment she shares with two friends by teaching music-related courses at Columbia College and DePaul University, but performing is her first priority.

Davis was born in Singapore to a British father and a Swedish mother; work took her family to Atlanta when she was six, then to Dallas when she was thirteen. In Atlanta, then home to national breakout artists such as En Vogue, OutKast, and Jodeci, she fell in love with hip-hop and R&B. Her father listened to Sly & the Family Stone and Blood, Sweat & Tears, and frequently sang along to the horns. After enrolling at the University of Texas at Arlington in 1999, she played saxophone in various school ensembles. She’d started out in a premed program, but that hadn’t stuck. “I quickly realized, after one semester, I couldn’t handle the stress and intensity of all of that memorizing,” she says. “So I changed to psychology.” Because her academic load wasn’t too heavy, she decided to pursue a double major, adding jazz.

“It was kind of a hobby,” she says. “It was more something I wanted to do on the side.” Through college she played in local salsa bands and occasionally sat in with a jazz combo led by a friend. The summer between her junior and senior years, though, she attended the Litchfield Jazz Camp in Connecticut, an experience that energized her—she’s returned almost every year since, first as a student and now as a teacher. The camp also made her realize how limited her perspective on jazz was.

“The first year I was there, there were kids totally vibing me: ‘What, you don’t have John Coltrane’s Crescent?'” she says, laughing. “I remember going out and buying it right away, and also picking up [Lee Konitz’s] Subconscious-Lee. It was the first time I began understanding the depth of it all.” She and her husband, trumpeter James Davis, moved to Evanston in 2004, and at Northwestern she more or less fused her two specialties from UTA—she decided to study music theory and cognition. Her knowledge of Chicago jazz when she arrived wasn’t deep. “I knew about Von Freeman and Fred Anderson, and I had heard about Ken Vandermark, and I knew about Gene Ammons and everyone who went to DuSable and studied with Walter Dyett,” she says. “But that was about all I knew.”

During her first few years here, Davis worked hard to make time to take in some of the music that surrounded her. She’d head into the city to hear scene mainstays such as Vandermark, Jim Baker, and Dave Rempis and check out Von Freeman’s Tuesday-night sessions at the New Apartment Lounge. Pete Miller’s in Evanston was just a few blocks from her place, so she often went to see guitarist Bobby Broom, but her studies still absorbed most of her time and energy.

Davis began to be a more active participant in the city’s musical life in fall 2006. She met bassist Matthew Golombisky, who’d been forced by Hurricane Katrina to transfer to Northwestern from the University of New Orleans, and she was soon a member of several bands affiliated with his fledgling Ears and Eyes collective—which wasn’t just a crew of musicians but also a label and concert series. She played in the improvising trio Pedway, Golombisky’s Tomorrow Music Orchestra, the quartet Zing!, and her husband’s quintet. School remained her first priority, though—despite all the performing she was doing, she wasn’t putting much energy into creating her own music.

She stayed busy with coursework through 2008, then turned to research for her dissertation, which focused on how social networks affect interpretations and perceptions of music. “I would invite musicians over for focus-group sessions,” she says. “They would bring in pieces of music that they were really familiar with, and we’d sit around and talk about them.” She would follow up with additional players from the same circles. “I’m really interested in the community—I guess you could call it cognitive anthropology.”

Davis and her husband divorced in 2009, and she finished her degree in 2010. From that point forward she devoted herself to developing as a musician. She became a regular at Freeman’s jam sessions, and Allemana noticed. “The first thing that impressed me about Caroline was she was one of only a handful of young players that came down early to hear Von, and then sit in,” he says. “She really tried to absorb Von’s vibe—musically, socially, philosophically, spiritually.”

In April 2011 Davis attended Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center, a competitive program that concentrated on composition. Around the same time she formed a practice group with Allemana, bassist John Tate, and drummer Jeremy Cunningham, intending to explore and develop specific technical ideas related to rhythm and improvisation, many of them borrowed from saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman, one of Freeman’s most famous disciples. But Davis traveled for much of 2011, so the group was largely on hold.

“At the beginning of 2011, I started feeling like I needed to learn more about what’s going on in the world of jazz—not just in Chicago, but everywhere,” she says. She made extended visits to Switzerland (where her father now lives), New York, New Orleans, Dallas, and San Francisco, sometimes focusing on music, sometimes relaxing. The group ended up performing a few times between her trips, but in fall 2011 Tate left town to attend Juilliard.

Allemana enlisted bassist Matt Ferguson, another veteran of Freeman’s New Apartment Lounge band. When Davis wrapped up her travels in late 2011, this quartet—with Allemana, Cunningham, and Ferguson—became her main project. (She’s also singing in her group Maitri and playing in Phil Spirito’s experimental rock band, Orso, in addition to several less active ensembles.) In April she organized and financed the recording session that produced the impressive Live Work & Play, which she’ll officially release November 6. It documents her swift transition from up-and-comer to full-fledged artist—it’s as if she’s been banking a storehouse of information, ideas, and technique ever since she began playing, and just now finally sorted it all out and put everything together.

Last month the Davis quartet played a superb set at the Chicago Jazz Festival, bringing the same crystalline purity it displays on the album to rich postbop tunes distinguished by remarkable rhythmic finesse. Later in the festival Davis was called to the bandstand by the great drummer Matt Wilson—whom she’d first met when she was a student at Litchfield—to sit in with his band Arts & Crafts. “It means a lot,” she says. “He’s tied to the history of the music, playing with Lee Konitz, who’s one of my all-time favorite jazz musicians. I feel like it validates me a little bit.” But if you’ve heard Davis in the past year, you already know that her own playing provides all the validation she needs.