Even though the Spring 2021 semester sees us resuming our work at a distance, the College of Music is beginning the new year united under a new dean. John Davis, longtime senior associate dean of the college, was appointed dean as of the first of the year.
In a virtual interview with former Director of Communications Jessie Bauters in December, Dean Davis talked about his musical journey, his time in the military and his hopes for a bright future for the college as it weathers its current challenges.
Jessie Bauters: Did you grow up in a musical family?
John Davis: Music was just a part of our lives growing up in Ohio, where I was born, and then Maryland. My mother has played the piano and organ for most of her life. She is almost 92, and still plays the organ for church services on occasion. She provided piano lessons to my sister, brothers and me when each of us were young. That, plus singing in children’s choirs at church, provided my first musical experiences. I was in fourth grade when I began playing the trumpet. My sister played clarinet, and my younger brother also chose to play trumpet. My brother also chose a life in higher education music: He is a musicology professor at SUNY Fredonia in New York.
JB: Besides your mother, who inspired you to make music?
JD: I’ve had such amazing mentors throughout my musical career, including my junior high and high school band directors, my college professors and my professional colleagues. I feel very fortunate to have these people in my life who all cared about me and believed in me. I recall a fellow high school music student who was a senior at the time I was a sophomore. He played trombone, and I remember many hours of playing brass duets and listening to music together.
JB: When did you first begin to see music as a career path for you?
JD: It was really by the time I was in high school. My bachelor’s degree is in music education, from Metropolitan State University here in Colorado. At the University of Denver, I earned a Master of Arts degree in performance.
I aspired to perform professionally with the great big bands; work as a studio musician for radio and television; and perform for touring Broadway shows. In the end, I did all of these to at least some degree. Beginning in my 20s, I played with classical, jazz and commercial groups, and performed with or for some amazing musicians.
JB: And after performing for a few years, you took a detour and joined the military. What was the motivation for that decision?
JD: I didn't like school in my 20s, and I thought I didn’t want to be a teacher. I decided to join the Army at what would be viewed as the lowest level of expertise needed, the infantry. And you're just doing grunt work. There’s this mindset of, ‘You just do what you're told.’
I was frustrated in the military. There were some many times we were asked to do things in a way that seemed so illogical to me. But the other soldiers weren’t as upset about that as me. Their mindset was, ‘Oh well. Suck it up and drive on.’ You do what you’re told.
JB: How long were you in the military before you decided enough was enough?
JD: I spent two years in the army during my initial enlistment, 12 months of which was spent in South Korea. When Desert Storm—The Gulf War—began in 1991, my reserve unit was activated and we were sent overseas to Germany for four months. Toward the end of my time in Korea—during the monsoon season, when the infantry would have to fill sandbags with mud and rebuild walls and bridges when the rain would wash them out—I realized that, unlike many of my fellow soldiers, I didn’t have to do this for a living. I didn’t have to start my day at 4 a.m., or finish my day dripping wet and muddy. There were other options out there.
And I realized that the difference between me and most of them was education. If someone knows about their options and then decides to be an infantry soldier, that’s great. But I was aware of the other options, and I decided I didn’t want to do that forever. I knew what was out there for me, and that came through education—whether it was a history class or music class. That’s when I became passionate about education.
JB: What parallels can you draw between your time in the military and your time as an administrator?
JD: The military system is very hierarchical. Whatever the person above you says, you do. You complete the mission. And that really helped me understand a hierarchical structure, even in a place as theoretically flat as higher education. I know how to respectfully engage with people laterally or above me. And at the same time, since I was looking up from the lowest rank of the military, I appreciated how important it is to be respectful to those lower in the hierarchy as well.
JB: What was your next move after the Army?
JD: From the military, I got fired up and committed from that day forward to education—opening people’s eyes to what’s out there for them. Knowing that I wanted to teach at a university level, I knew that the shortest path to get there was for me to return to trumpet and jazz and receive a doctoral degree. As I investigated that, the people back in Colorado were so welcoming and supportive, and I eventually went to the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley for my doctoral work in trumpet performance and pedagogy, with a secondary emphasis in jazz studies.
JB: When did you come to CU Boulder?
JD: I started my doctoral work at UNC in 1990. From 1994-1999, I served first as interim director of jazz studies and then assistant professor of jazz at UNC. During that time, I always considered a position with the University of Colorado Boulder to be one of the very few places I would be interested in, should a position as director of jazz studies ever become available. In 1999, it did, and I applied and was named to the position.
JB: One of the notable changes that happened at the College of Music during that time was the naming of the Thompson Jazz Studies Program. How did that come about?
JD: Dan Sher, dean of the college during my time as director of jazz studies, connected me with two wonderful people: Jack and Jeannie Thompson. Dan knew jazz was one of their areas of passion, and that they wanted to make an impact. He connected us, and a great friendship was formed as Jack and Jeannie became more and more involved with our program and students.
This culminated in their incredible gift to the program and the creation of the Thompson Jazz Studies Program, which was the first named program on the CU Boulder campus! With that level of support, we were able to add adjunct instructors, record CDs of the ensembles, appear at national festivals and prepare our students to become significant educators and performers.
JB: You left full-time teaching in 2011 to be an administrator. Why did you want to refocus your time?
JD: I love doing what I can to support the success of others. As an administrator, you are able to see a “bigger picture” and have the opportunity to make an impact that benefits so many others. I’ve always been attracted to problem-solving, and a dean is always working to solve many problems on many levels, all at the same time. The challenge is great, but the satisfaction of helping our students and faculty succeed is enormously rewarding.
As my work in music administration increased, I earned another degree, this one not in music. I received a Master of Science degree in organizational leadership from Colorado State University. This was helpful because I could directly apply what I was learning about organizational structure, communication, management, leadership, and so much more.
JB: During Dean Shay’s administration, you stepped in as acting dean from June through December of 2019. Do you feel like that interim position prepared you for this appointment?
JD: It felt a bit like “trying out the bike” before committing to the full ride. But it solidified for me that serving as dean of the college was the right thing for me. It let me experience first-hand the impact a dean can have toward accomplishing good work. It also permitted me to work even more closely with the tremendously talented and passionate people involved with the college, which was very gratifying.
JB: What excites you most about leading the college?
JD: This is a campus that supports and values the arts. The college has been fortunate to have great leadership over many years. Supporters of the college are among the most passionate and caring people I have known. And the students, faculty and staff are truly outstanding. These things combined make the CU Boulder College of Music a program that most other music units in the nation aspire to emulate.
At the same time, all of us realize there is even more we can accomplish toward the betterment of society through music. We are always looking to increase our quality, improve the student experience, positively impact others beyond our walls and improve the lives of people through what we do and how we do it. As leader of the college, the dean has a front row seat. What an exciting place to be as we continue to work toward achieving our dreams!
JB: What are the biggest challenges that you think the college faces?
JD: There is no doubt that the current situation has made this the most challenging time in memory for higher education. Grappling with as-yet unknown future models of public performance, teaching with technology, funding, etc., makes planning more challenging than ever. In addition, our introspection as to the part we have played in systemic racism and lack of inclusivity is long overdue, and we need to make changes for the better.
In the face of uncertainty, we need to develop aggressive planning to move forward. In the face of restrictions, we need to aspire to do things that are going to take significant additional resources. And in the face of difficult self reflection—as individuals, as a college and as a society—we need to have hard conversations about systemic racism. We need to determine not only what have we done—oftentimes without realizing it—but how can we do better.
We will, as a college, need to define who we are, who we want to be, where we want to go and then how to get there. As a college, we need to define and determine our shared values and priorities. Now, more than ever before, we need to think of the college first, rather than as individuals within it. In such a challenging time—during which so much work needs to be done—we will succeed, but only together.
JB: With that in mind, what are your long-term goals for the college?
JD: I hope the college becomes more unified in its view of what we are trying to achieve. I plan to establish stronger transparency, so we all have a better understanding of the challenges and limitations the college faces.
In the areas of diversity and inclusion, I hope we progress beyond our own education, reflection and conversations and make long-lasting, sustainable improvements to what we do and who we are. I’d like to see the College of Music become the model of inclusivity for other music programs across the nation.
Finally, I’d like to see us come through this incredibly challenging financial time as stronger, more effective and more unified in our efforts to positively impact humanity through music. This is a challenging time. There is hard work ahead. It won’t be easy for any of us. But I believe we have the people in place to succeed in this important work.
JB: Why is the future of music at CU Boulder bright?
JD: I think that, at its core, the college is composed of exceptional individuals. And those exceptional individuals are most powerful with a shared mission and vision. If we work together, we will be almost unstoppable. I think back to my time in the military: If you need to build a 40-foot wall of sandbags in the middle of a monsoon, and you put a bunch of soldiers together with a shared mission, it’s stunning what they can accomplish. People can do anything when they’re aligned.
And I honestly have to say our community of supporters makes us unstoppable, too. I'm talking about our donors and friends, and the greater campus. They are all so supportive, time and time again, and they are absolutely a part of the college. And when you put that group together with our faculty, staff and students, I think the future of the College of Music is very bright.