Sunday, August 12, 2012


The Supper Club-- when a date on the calendar meant a night on the town in 1950s and '60s Kalamazoo.

This was when parents dressed up and called a babysitter, leaving behind a whiff of perfume and sophistication as they rushed out the door.  Cocktail dresses and dinner jackets were de rigeur for Supper Club members.

The place was the ballroom in one of the hotels on Michigan Avenue in downtown Kalamazoo.  Round tables with white cloths were arranged around the dance floor with three or four couples per table for an evening of dining and dancing.

At the center of it all was the live orchestra that brought out the best dance moves in these young couples-- professionals and parents by day, city slickers on Saturday night.

Bobby Davidson and the big band that bore his name was often the featured orchestra on the Supper Club roster.  This was not just a three-piece combo, but a 15+ member big band with original arrangements by their leader, the diminutive drummer with a toothy grin.  Seeing Bobby Davidson setting up his drum kit  meant the fun had just begun.

Turning back the clock a decade or so, one might have found this same roomful of people in Army or Navy uniforms at a World War II canteen, dancing to a live band playing the music of Glenn Miller.  That era was Bobby's era as well.

When he joined the United States Air Force in 1942, Bobby Davidson signed up for flight training until the powers that be learned of his musical talents.  He stayed on with the dance band at the Aviation Cadet Center in San Antonio, Texas, entertaining the troops until 1945.

After the war, Bobby returned to Kalamazoo (where he had grown up), and formed an all-GI orchestra-- the only one of its kind.  The Bobby Davidson Orchestra grew out of this ensemble and kept Kalamazoo dancing for 46 years.  Bobby booked the band at country clubs, lodges, at Don Neal's, Mr. T-Bone, and the Supper Club.  His dance card was always full!

                                                    Bobby Davidson
                                         -Photo from his Kalamazoo Gazette
                                                 column, March 29, 1960

Bobby wore many musical hats as a member of the community.  What started out as a part-time job of percussion instructor at Western Michigan University in 1952, Bobby went on to develop the Jazz Studies Program, and started the internationally-recognized Jazz Lab Band.  When he retired from Western in 1983 as Assistant Professor Emeritus of Music, the university bestowed on him the title:  "Godfather of Jazz".                          

Bobby Davidson's library of hundreds of his arrangements for jazz band were donated to the WMU School of Music.

Bobby Davidson was also owner and proprietor of Davidson's Music Shoppe at 135 N. Burdick Street on the Kalamazoo Mall in the 1950s and 1960s.  He sold instruments and records and provided studio space for private instruction.  Bobby even had his own column in the Kalamazoo Gazette.  When long-time Kalamazoo Symphony Music Director Herman Felber retired in 1960, Davidson paid tribute:

                               -Kalamazoo Gazette, Tuesday, March 29, 1960 


                                                    -Kalamazoo Gazette ad, September, 1962

In 1962, the Kalamazoo Symphony enlisted the talents of Bobby Davidson and his band to perform a world-premiere with the KSO under the baton of their new Music Director, Gregory Millar.  The concert venue was the top deck of Gilmore Brothers department store parking lot.  The date was September 11, 1962, a chilly moonlit evening that did not deter the crowds from coming to hear Davidson's band, Max Roach (in another world-premiere), and Alice herself as piano soloist in George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

The Peter Phillips composition that featured the Bobby Davidson Big Band, Variations on a Theme of Thelonious Monk, received only polite applause, but the audience's mood changed when Davidson and his men launched into familiar jazz standards that were played as an encore.

    The newness of the jazz and symphonic wedding in Phillips' style is reflected in the
    fact that the audience applauded the concerto politely but cheered later when Bobby
   Davidson's band played night club blues.   

                                                       -Larry Pratt, Kalamazoo Gazette Staff Writer
                                                        Wednesday, September 12, 1962

In the 1970s, Alice and C.H. and their Waite Avenue neighbors got permission from the City of Kalamazoo to close the street for a block party and engaged Bobby and his band for the occasion.  When they arrived, they proceeded to set up their chairs and music stands right in the middle of the street, which proved ideal for dancing!

In 1991, Bobby Davidson was recognized by the community he loved so much, when he was awarded the Community Medals of Arts from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, for his outstanding contribution to the arts in Kalamazoo.  He shared honors with Alice that year, as well as community theater advocate Tom Small. 

The medal ceremony was held in Bronson Park on July 17, 1991 at a Kalamazoo Symphony Summer Parks Concert, with Maestro Yoshimi Takeda conducting.

       At the Community Medal of Arts ceremony, Bronson Park, July 17, 1991
Left to right:  Jim Shumaker, former KSO trumpeter; Jim Gilmore, committee member; Tom Small, medal recipient; Bobby Davidson, medal recipient; Alice Mullen, medal recipient.

When Bobby Davidson died this year at age 93, Betzler funeral home was the scene of one of the year's best parties, complete with a bar, food and live music.  Saxophonist Ken Morgan, bassist Tom Knific and others formed an excellent jazz combo for the occasion. Harrison Orr, a 17-year member of Bobby Davidson's Big Band sat in and wowed the crowd with stylish clarinet solos of some of the great jazz standards.

R.I.P. Bobby... and thanks for the memories!

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