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Jeremy Davenport: Get a Room

The swagger in Jeremy Davenport’s step is a little more exaggerated these days. He’s riding high on the success of his residence at the Ritz-Carlton on Canal Street, a new album— We’ll Dance ’Til Dawn —and the prospect of establishing a foothold in the New York City club scene at the Huckleberry Bar in Williamsburg.

Davenport, a 39-year-old trumpeter and vocalist, is different from most successful New Orleans musicians in that his musical talent is not his most immediately obvious attribute. He is contemporary American star material, good looking even at a casual glance. His visual magnetism makes him telegenic, leading tabloids to link him to the MTV generation and jazz critics to compare him to Chet Baker. Cosmopolitan dubbed him “easy on the eyes,” a quote his publicists use high in the bio.

Davenport’s most obvious influence is Harry Connick, Jr., a child prodigy of New Orleans music who became a hit on the New York supper club circuit before moving to Hollywood to pursue a film career. Connick is clearly a mentor, helping to convince Davenport to move to New Orleans, then hiring him as the youngest featured performer in his band’s history. Davenport filled the role effortlessly, just as he did when he joined Emeril Lagasse’s cast of TV characters.

But Davenport is a very different musical personality than Connick. For all his charm and good looks, he is not the boy next door, the earnest spokesperson role Connick has perfected. Davenport projects an element of risk behind the easygoing personality. His performances, for all of their casual demeanor, hold the threat of something unsettling waiting in the wings, just outside of the audience’s view. It’s an act he has polished over the years, and it includes an odd pratfall here and there, just enough to keep the audience aware that something unusual might happen. And where Connick is the ultimate family entertainer, Davenport works adult, reveling in risqué jokes and anecdotes about bad behavior. In this sense, one of his deepest influences is Louis Prima, but Davenport is hardly imitating Prima. One listen to his version of “Old Black Magic,” a signature tune for Prima, proves that. Davenport delivers it with a dry, direct vocal on We’ll Dance ’Til Dawn. The intricate, samba-influenced arrangement is all about the nuances of Davenport’s approach, not the broad humor of Prima’s.

Though his mother, a vocal teacher, encouraged Davenport to sing since childhood, he began as an instrumentalist, following the lead of his father Frank Davenport, who played trombone with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The young Jeremy was already studying Louis Armstrong when his father brought him to meet Wynton Marsalis, an event that changed his life.

“I was 13 and Wynton came to St. Louis to play with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, which my dad played in,” Davenport recalls. “My dad came and got me out of school and said, ‘You’ve got to come and hear this guy play the trumpet.’ I took my horn down there and went to the rehearsal. We went backstage and I played something for Wynton. He took me under his wing immediately. He gave me trumpet lessons, even over the phone, just a wealth of knowledge. He was an extraordinarily generous person with his time. I would call him at odd hours and ask questions: ‘Man, on that Clifford Brown solo, what is he doing there?’ And he’d pick up his horn and show me. That’s how the relationship developed.”

Marsalis told Davenport he should drop out of high school in St. Louis and enroll in New Orleans’ NOCCA program. His parents insisted that he finish high school locally, but encouraged him to attend New York’s Manhattan School of Music upon graduation.

“I moved to New York City to be close to Wynton,” says Davenport, who studied classical music during the day and played jazz at night while he was in Manhattan. One night Marsalis took him to the Knickerbocker in Greenwich Village to hear Harry Connick, Jr. Before the night was out, Connick called Davenport to the stage.

“I remember it was a Sunday night and Harry called, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ Here I was, a kid from St. Louis. I knew the song, of course, but I had never played it before. That’s how Harry and I first met.”

Both Marsalis and Connick told Davenport that he needed to move to New Orleans.

“Wynton was adamant that if I really wanted to know about jazz, the place to go was New Orleans. At that point in my life, if Wynton were to say, ‘Look, you need to go to the George Washington Bridge and jump off into the river,’ I would have done it. Harry also pushed me to go study with Ellis Marsalis, so I transferred from Manhattan School of Music to UNO. My parents thought I was nuts, but they were supportive.”

Davenport’s musical education became a whirlwind when he hit New Orleans in 1989. One of the first things he learned was how to market his music.

“Ellis was the first person in music to tell me, ‘Okay, that’s great that you can play that, but what are you going to do with it? Where are you going to play this?’ He was very practical. He used to joke about playing avant-garde music. He said, ‘That’s why you call it free jazz, ’cause you play it for free.’ When we would learn songs he would say, ‘Who’s going to buy this?’ That’s not what a lot of people think jazz musicians are like, but it’s very practical and awesome, and it was a great lesson I’ll never forget.”

Ellis Marsalis also challenged Davenport to expand his repertoire.

“I remember when I first got to town and he would let me sit in with him at Snug Harbor, he would call a tune he knew I didn’t know, not to embarrass me but just to throw me out there. I’ll never forget that because it forced me to learn more material than I would normally have tried to learn. It made me want to learn every song, which is a life’s work, of course, but it’s fun because it never ends. Tonight if I went and sat in somewhere and someone called ‘Lush Life,’ I’d be fucked because I don’t really know it. I kind of know it, but it’s hard. Mr. Marsalis would always say, ‘You should have learned that song.’ One time he called me up and he called ‘Whispering.’ I play that song every night now because I didn’t know it then and it taught me something. It’s the song that ‘Groovin’ High’ is based on; it’s an old, corny, ’30s love song. So Ellis calls this obscure American songbook composition and it took me two choruses to figure out, ‘Oh, this is “Groovin’ High” changes. He knew I knew ‘Groovin’ High,’ so he knew I could handle it, but he also knew I didn’t know ‘Whispering’ and I would have to figure it out. That’s teaching. Those kinds of lessons were priceless.”

Davenport only lasted a semester at UNO before Connick hired him for his road band, a gig that lasted four years and took him around the world. When he wasn’t playing with Connick, Davenport performed with Ellis Marsalis. Meanwhile, he was being courted by record companies looking to sign him.

“George Butler, who signed Wynton and Branford, Harry, Donald Harrison and all those guys, offered me a contract at Sony. He came to one of the first Jazz Fests I played with Ellis and said, ‘Look, I want you to be the next Chet Baker.’ I remember thinking ‘Okay, whatever you want to call it, I want to start making records.’ Soon after that, he got fired and my deal kind of disappeared. Then Telarc approached me and I made two records with them. The only problem was, they wouldn’t let me bring in a New Orleans producer for the record; they wanted their own producer. Shannon Powell was on the record and I remember at one point we were doing ‘I’m Confessing That I Love You,’ which I got off a Louis Armstrong recording, and Shannon played this funky kind of New Orleans beat on a wood block that they objected to. ‘No, that’s too vaudeville,’ they said. I was like what? Vaudeville? Do you know who this guy is?”

By the time he finished his contract with Telarc, Davenport was disillusioned with the record business.

“What I should have done was kept on this path that I was on,” he says, “but I felt defeated because things didn’t work out the way I thought they were going to work out, so I stopped making records.”

It took 11 years for Davenport to make his third studio album, but We’ll Dance ’Til Dawn, his debut for the New Orleans-based Basin Street label, was worth the wait.

The record finally codifies Davenport’s vocal style, a unique construct based on an understanding of how to mine the past in a way that contemporary listeners can relate to as part of their own experience. He is an astute judge of his own limitations, reigning in his voice and allowing his melodic, conversational trumpet playing to carry equal weight in the arrangements. It’s a shrewd balance of his talents.

That balance carries over into Davenport’s songwriting, which is the most surprising thing about the surprisingly strong We’ll Dance ’Til Dawn. Davenport doesn’t just sing songs by Arlen and Mercer, Rodgers and Hart and Jimmy Webb; he is trying to write new ones in a similar style, romantic songs and ballads with strong, melodic themes.

The way Davenport diverges from his influences is instructive. He has obviously studied Sinatra, but avoids the trap (which the young Connick did not) of hewing to the contours of Sinatra’s vocal style closely enough to invite comparison. That’s apparent from his reading of “The Lady Is a Tramp” on the new album, which scrupulously avoids the Sinatra version.

“A lot of people associate that song with Sinatra,” he agrees, “but you can’t go there. I mean, once Frank has done it, what are you going to do with it? That would be my complaint with Michael Bublé, who I’m jealous as hell of because he’s kicking ass, but his first couple of records were Frank records. People liked it so much the first time that another generation of people liked it again, it just happened to be a different guy, but he’s using Frank’s arrangements. I could never do that. I’m a musician first, so to come out and do an imitation of Frank wouldn’t work.”

In fact, Davenport learned the danger of that direct comparison from working with Connick.

“I was in his band during the period when he was being compared to Frank,” says Davenport. “It really bothered him to be boxed in like that. His whole imagery and everything was based on young Frank, and I was too naive at the time to see the problem because when I started playing with Harry I was 19 and I wasn’t really into Frank Sinatra at that point in my life. I knew about it, but it wasn’t my thing. At that time, I was with Harry all the time because I was on the road with him. I remember how much it used to piss him off because the first question at every interview was about Frank Sinatra. Harry was like, ‘Gimme a break.’ But really, it’s about as big a compliment as you can get as a male singer. There’s no doubt it helped his career; I definitely learned something from that.”

It’s especially difficult for an artist like Davenport, who is consciously trying to evoke another era while at the same time putting his own contemporary stamp on it.

“I fell in love with that music—Johnny Mercer songs, Arlen and Ross, Cole Porter songs, Gershwin, Irvin Berlin, but I have no interest in being a nostalgia act or a retro performer of those songs. I hate when people do tribute records. I don’t want to wear the costume from that era. I want to arrive at the point where I’m doing my original music in a relevant, standard, American song format. I’m not trying to break new ground. I’m basically using that music as a template and making it mine, making it personal. That’s where I’m trying to go with this whole thing.”

Davenport employs contemporary technology to help him achieve his goals. In addition to using Twitter to keep his fans up to date on his comings and goings, he’s an avid researcher of material on iTunes.

“I’m obsessed with iTunes,” he admits. “I’ll take a song and plug it in to iTunes and research every single version that I can find. It’s an interesting tool because when I was first coming up, I had to listen to music on LPs and to go out and beg my parents for money to check out just a couple of versions of a song was hard. Now you can buy 10 versions of each song for 10 bucks. It’s cool. So if I want to do a song but I don’t want to do it like someone else did, I can research all the versions then add my own ideas to it.”

The trying years since Katrina have produced more survivors than success stories in what passes for the music industry in New Orleans, but Davenport’s career trajectory has been impressive, as much for its discipline and singularity as its content. Davenport has branded himself as a ballroom performer in a city known for its clubs, festivals and street musicians. His act is designed for a room where mostly locals go for a night out with the touch of Hollywood musical elegance provided by the glitz of the Ritz. And Davenport makes sure the punch line is branded hard on the product—he plays in the Davenport Lounge, where the patrons drink Davenportinis.

Starting in July, Davenport will wing his way between his jobs in New Orleans and New York. “Jet Blue is my commuter bus,” he jokes. He plans a more downscale approach to his New York gig at Huckleberry’s, a small, hip, tapas bar in a Brooklyn neighborhood that is more of a walk-in joint than a couples’ night out venue. The name may put you in mind of “Moon River,” and the patrons at Huckleberry’s drink craft-brewed IPA, not Davenportinis, but he’s still looking to put his own stamp on the gig.

“I’m trying,” says Davenport, “to get them to stock Abita.”