Past Lives: Donna Lee Davidson

Jessie Shohfi
May 17, 2023

Past Lives is an interview series with School of the Arts Writing faculty, students, and alumni who began their professional lives on different career paths. In this series, we discuss the lives they led before they became artists—and how their work in other industries informs the creative work they do now. Here, we talk to Nonfiction student Donna Lee Davidson about prescriptive percussion, jazz clubs, and the all-encompassing importance of rhythm.

Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Donna (she/her) is the youngest of 11 children. She is an orchestral percussionist, jazz vibraphonist, and a writer with nonfiction life experiences. Her writing has appeared in American Composers Forum I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, Early Music America Magazine, The New York Times, and New Music USA

How did you first become involved with music?

Donna Lee Davidson: I love talking about this. I grew up in a really musical family. My parents are musicians, and we all had to play instruments. And—true story—I have ten siblings, so when they got to me, my dad said the only thing left was drums.

He didn’t give you a choice?

DLD: No. It was just basically, “You’re going to do this because no one else is.” My parents had us all play different instruments. None of us played the same [one]. They weren't going to have that, which was, in retrospect, a great idea.

Did you play together as a family?

DLD: We played in orchestras together—I was always playing with mainly my two brothers who also did it professionally.

My mother plays the flute, and my father plays saxophone. She's in classical, and he's in jazz. My mom was a classically trained musician. She went to a conservatory, and then she went to another conservatory, but being a Black woman in the sixties, it just stopped for her one day. The barrier was there. There weren’t ways to break through, it was just done.

Do you think that affected her ambition for you and your siblings?

DLD: Absolutely. She’s like, “Do it. Do it perfect. Play the music. Do not miss a note.”

How did you feel about being assigned percussion? What did you enjoy about it?

DLD: It was incredible. My father taught me my first five stroke roll, which is where you get a drummer started. After he taught me that, I was just like, “This is the shit. This is my life. Love this.” I didn't care to play any other instrument.

When you played in youth symphonies, what was the culture and community like?

DLD: I was in the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra and the Atlanta Youth Wind Symphony. Those were our premier groups. We also played in regional groups, with players from Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, mostly the same age but grouped depending on how well you played.  

It was a lot of whiteness, and then it was me and my brothers. We were in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s talent development program, so we were getting lessons and financial help buying instruments. We got to see the symphony every weekend, because they gave us tickets. Eventually, when I lived in Philly, I learned a concert can cost a hundred dollars on any given night. Usually more. I didn't realize what kind of privilege that was, to be able to go every weekend.

Eventually, a community of Black classical musicians started growing in Atlanta and we started going to more of these national and international arenas, and playing with this new community of musicians.

How did you make the transition into writing?

DLD: In that talent development program, they made us write concert reports. Then in undergrad I had to write concert reports again. We all hated it. All the students would be thinking, “Stop wasting our time, we could be in the practice room right now. I could've perfected this technique that I almost have down.” But now I'm writing freelance reviews for The New York Times. It's fun. I did not know that those concert reports would be useful in this way, helping me find work in writing concert reviews, album reviews. I'm getting to engage with the music in a different way.

How do you write about music, which is meant to be felt and heard and experienced—how do you handle the challenge of putting that into words?

DLD: That's what's so fun about it. I'm having a blast. Classical music is rigid, the practicing, the technique. I used to have practice sessions planned out to the minute, the tempo markings, the amount of times I would play a certain passage before moving on. It was very rigid. And so, because of that, writing about it is rigid. The way in which I have to tell people what something sounded like, and what they might feel if they were able to hear it, and what I felt—it's not easy.

At Columbia, I write a lot about my own experiences, especially playing percussion. I only played with white men the entire time; I never played with a Black person, man or a woman. And that's over twenty-five years, including international groups. You'd think one of 'em would just wander onto the scene. So I write about that. Also I have a big family, so—a lot of material there. As they say, you can't make this stuff up. I’m writing essays about those kinds of things, and on every level music is sitting in it.

Do you think about how you construct your sentences in terms of rhythm?

DLD: Yeah, absolutely. Rhythm is important. It's always important for everything, whether you're on a factory line or making music, obviously, or writing, or doing math, science…

Is rhythm something that you notice in writers you love, writers who inspire you?

DLD: Yes, of course. [Professor] Margo Jefferson—you can write entire symphonies with her rhythm. She was a big reason why I wanted to come to this program.

Toni Morrison has a sensational rhythm. It's kind of like when you're running or you're exercising, and you can actually feel your heartbeat in your chest. Vividly. I feel that way about her: she has that sensational rhythm but with the steadiness of the heart impulse.

Richard Wright is absolutely amazing. His rhythm is personified in the way that he moves dialogue—you don't get stuck, it's fluid. 

Are there other aspects of your music background that affect your writing practice?

DLD: Growing up, I was in the practice room five, six hours a day after school. I would practice in the orchestra room during some classes. I didn't go to gym class a lot, [instead] I practiced. With writing, I have tried so hard to break out of that isolation by writing in different places, going to cafés. In contrast to how I practice as a musician, when I write in isolation, it is not as effective.

In an orchestra, when the instruments are in harmony and the music swells, you get to feel like you’re a part of something bigger than you. Have you experienced any moments in your writing life that relate to that?

 DLD: If it works out well, if you get with the right people, that's a harmonically complex community. If they understand your writing—they really get it and they get you—it can be so intimate in that way. I'm saying this because I’ve had this experience in workshops, where it felt like that community was real. Getting to that point—it goes so smooth and fluid into the harmonic thickness, when you don't have to find it, it just lands. It finds you. You were in the right place at the right time in the right class with the right people.

Besides Margo Jefferson, are there any other Columbia faculty you're excited to work with?

DLD: [Adjunct Professor] Erroll McDonald. That dude is completely messing up my mind. Please quote me on that. Every single class, he's pushing us into some different far-reaching realm. And he challenges everything we say; even if it's the smartest thing in the world, he'll challenge it anyway. And then you think, “I thought I was smart… until this class.” He's great. We are reading books that I have never been able to even form in my imagination, the ways in which they achieve what they do.  And they’re all translated into English, so we get to talk about language, but it also shows so much of what we're missing in so many of our other classes, when we're not getting enough international writers.

How are you staying involved with music now?

DLD: I still play now—and I'm doing a lot of writing about music, so all the time, they send me to these concerts. I can just get in touch with the venue and say, “Hey, I'm New York Times. I'm coming through.”

How can interested people discover the music scene?

DLD: Go to jazz clubs. You don't have to find a hole in the wall. They are well advertised, they have the best  jazz musicians out there, and you don't have to do anything special to go. A lot of venues are right out in the open. I know on TV, they make it seem like you need to be in the “in crowd” to know where this thing or that thing is happening, but if you go to Lincoln Center, they have so many free musical events. The shows are listed right there online, on the website. You'll get to see international musicians, and a lot of musicians of color, now that I think about it—all kinds of music, all kinds of different artists.