Eddy Davis, Banjo Virtuoso Who Carried a Torch For Trad Jazz, Dies of COVID-19 at 79

Apr 8, 2020

Eddy Davis, a banjoist and bandleader who enjoyed a sprawling career in traditional jazz, most visibly through a decades-long association with Woody Allen, died on Tuesday at Mount Sinai West hospital in New York City. He was 79.

Conal Fowkes, a pianist who worked closely with Davis, notably as a touring duo, said the cause was complications from the coronavirus.

Fowkes was also a member of The Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band, with which Allen — the prolific, now-polemical filmmaker, who moonlights as a clarinetist ­— has held court in New York for some 35 years. The band was a Monday-night institution at the Café Carlyle, where it first set up shop in 1997, after a long tenure at Michael’s Pub.

That same year, the documentary Wild Man Blues chronicled Allen’s first tour with Davis’ band. (In this clip, Davis begins a solo about a minute into the title song.)

Davis, who billed himself as The Manhattan Minstrel, led a colorful life in music apart from his affiliation with Allen. Born Eddy Ray Davis on Sept. 26, 1940, in Lafayette, Indiana, he picked up the banjo during his senior year in high school, in order to play Dixieland with a college band called The Salty Dogs. The group, based out of Purdue, played all over the Midwest, opening for the likes of The Four Freshmen and The Kingston Trio.

He too attended Purdue, but only for a year, heeding the call of the nightclub scene in Chicago. He became a fixture at spots like the Gaslight Club and Bourbon Street, often working opposite variety or comedy acts.

He put together acts of that sort himself, with collaborators including the actor David Huddleston. He also performed and helped create a Dixieland revue at Disneyland, and served as musical director for a touring revival of Whoopee!  

He recorded his debut album, Live! At the Old Town Gate, in 1966 with a group he called the Eddy Davis Dixie Jazzmen. Among his later albums were Whiz Bang (1973), a satirical effort with flute and tuba; Plays and Sings Just For Fun (1974), largely devoted to Jelly Roll Morton; and Eddy Davis And The Hot Jazz Orchestra (1983), with clarinetist Jack Maheu, pianist Don Ewell and others.

Davis became a trusted colleague of other leading jazz traditionalists: he played drums in the earliest incarnation of Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, and conducted and orchestrated a musical by Terry Waldo.  

When conductor Maurice Peress presented a 60th anniversary tribute to Paul Whiteman’s 1924 Aeolian Hall Concert, he enlisted Davis on banjo. By that point he had a regular gig at a club called the Red Blazer Too with fellow banjoist Cynthia Sayer and bassist Pete Compo. In a review for The New York Times, John S. Wilson noted that the band “reflected Mr. Davis’s ebullient, effervescent personality as it explored his broad repertory of early jazz and novelty songs.”

With Sayer, Davis also founded The New York Banjo Ensemble, which recorded an album of Gershwin material in 1984, and a follow-up of rags and other fare in 2005.

For a good stretch in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Davis could be heard every week not only at the Café Carlyle but also at a restaurant called The Cajun, on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. The band he led there would feature Scott Robinson on C-melody saxophone, and it became a regular visit for special guests. This footage, from 2006, features Robinson and Fowkes.

In a written tribute, Robinson hailed Davis as “a veteran of the old Chicago days when music was hot, joyful, exuberant and unselfconscious.” He added: “Eddy was also what used to be called a ‘character’: affable, opinionated, hilarious, and irascible all in one, and above all highly passionate about music.”

He is survived by his longtime life partner, Ruth Miller, and a daughter from a previous relationship, Lucie Davis.

Davis’ association with Woody Allen ran even deeper than their longstanding Monday-night gig would attest. They first met in Chicago in the 1960s, when Davis was headlining a club on Rush Street, and Allen was doing standup at Mister Kelly’s. (He’d stop by to sit in on clarinet.)

Davis played on the soundtrack to Allen’s 1987 film Radio Days, and he appears onscreen as a band member in Sweet and Lowdown. He received a Grammy Award for his contribution to the soundtrack for Midnight in Paris.

“I have never heard a banjo sound so beautiful,” says Fowkes, who released a live album with Davis in 2011. “He could play sweet ballads, bossa novas, Dixieland tunes — it didn’t matter to him. I think he’s the kind of guy that, whatever instrument he’d picked up as a kid, all that would have come out. It happened to be the banjo.”