For many American kids, their first big memory is attending a baseball game or a Disney movie. For GRCC Emeritus Faculty member Duane Davis, it was an opera. When he was around the age of nine the Metropolitan Opera came to his hometown of Cleveland and his mother took him to see Tosca. Although a dark, chilling tale that might seem scary even to adults, Tosca was to Davis a life-changing experience. He recalls that he was, in his words, "smitten by the grandeur of it. I was so taken with it that it remained with me through my life."
His love for the grandeur of music has taken him around the world to teach, compose, and arrange music in all its forms. He started early as a self-taught piano player and a vocal prodigy. His family often hosted musical guests that included Errol Garner and Lena Horne. Following high school Davis attended Knoxville College, a black liberal arts college in Tennessee, where he met his future wife, Kaye, an accomplished musician and teacher. The couple were married in 1969 and came to Grand Rapids not long after to take teaching positions with the GRPS.
Duane began his tenure at Northeast Junior High and later taught at Creston High School. From those early days, there was something magical about his character. More than one observer shared stories about Davis entering a performance room full of rowdy students who immediately calmed down in his presence ready to raise their voices in song. The magic also came with a growing reputation. He was recruited to teach classes at Western Michigan University before moving on to Grand Rapids Community College in 1983.
From there he took on other roles, as music director for Circle Theater and Actors Theater and as chorus master for Opera Grand Rapids, just to name a few. His work at GRCC with the Shades of Blue vocal ensemble earned international recognition and the GRCC Choir performed across the U.S. including a date at Carnegie Hall. His chorale groups performed for such notables as Bishop Desmond Tutu, John Houseman, Coretta Scott King, David Letterman, and Tony Bennett, and performed with Bobby McFerrin and Sesame Street's Bob McGrath. His compositions and arrangements have premiered throughout the U.S. and Canada and he's been a guest lecturer and teacher throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.
Davis has earned countless accolades for his work, most of which he shyly brushes aside in favor of talking about what makes music work best: "A community of singers...have to feel worthy...that they are vital in a production." Davis and his wife raised three children, two sons who are university professors in music, and a daughter who is an elementary school principal in New York City. Duane and Kaye are retired from the GRPS system but their musical careers remain filled with vitality and adventure. Kaye still teaches piano. Duane still teaches and directs honors choirs throughout the U.S.
Sources: Opera, Jazz, Musical Theater: The Many Hats of Duane Davis, https://operagr.org, April 18, 2018; Duane Davis: Lessons for a Lifetime, Piano Teachers' Forum of Grand Rapids, https://ptfgr.org; Why Opera Grand Rapids' Duane Davis is departing after 31 years as chorus master, Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk; MLive, April 29, 2015; GRCC Professor Duane Davis awarded Emeritus Faculty status, https://grcc.edu, April 30, 2020.
Image: Copyright, MLive