Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis: A Firm Grasp on Saxophone Greatness

Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis: A Firm Grasp on Saxophone Greatness

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis (1922 – 1986) was often just called “Jaws,” a sign of respect for his mastery of the tenor saxophone as well as a description of the way he clamped down on his mouthpiece.

While the biographies of most royalty from jazz’s Golden Age have a chapter in which they make their first fateful journey to New York City, Davis’ story starts there. He was born in Harlem and spent most of his life calling New York his home.

He taught himself to play saxophone as a child, catching on quickly and wasting no time in finding places to show off his skills. In the 1930s, Harlem teemed with jazz clubs, so all Davis had to do was walk in the door and blow his horn. By his teen years he was already a star in the renowned jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse, one of Harlem’s most coveted seats for any ambitious jazz musician.

Starting in the 1940s with his band Eddie Davis and His Beboppers, over the decades Davis worked in many groups. He collaborated with the likes of fellow saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Sonny Stitt and branched out into Latin jazz for an album with percussionist Ray Barretto. Among Davis’ most lasting contributions is his work with Hammond organist Shirley Jackson. The combination of their respective instruments – reed and synthesized-reed, so different yet so compatible – produced a new and distinct timbral blend. It’s one of those sounds that seems primordial once it’s out in the world, but it took a meeting of the right two minds to come up with it.

His fame grew in the 1950s when he landed another sought-after post as a member of the Count Basie Orchestra. This was a dream come true for a lifelong fan of saxophonist Ben Webster, a Basie mainstay. The energy and passion of Davis’ playing matched perfectly with that high-octane ensemble. Although his roots were in swing, Davis possessed remarkable stylistic flexibility, being equally comfortable in a wide range of jazz subgenres, from Latin to bebop.

With a sound that could be either tough-guy or sweet, wild or gentle, Davis fit in everywhere. No wonder many of the best players in jazz were eager to work with him in the studio and onstage throughout his long career.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.

  1. Track: “Jaws”
  2. Album: The Battle of Birdland
    Label: Roost
    Year: 1954

The Battle of Birdland is live recording of Davis performing with Sonny Stitt at Birdland in New York City. Billed as a “tenor battle” by promoters, everyone is a winner as these two great tenor saxophone players trade licks.

The album opens with the best of the improvisatory jousts, a 10-minute version of “Jaws,” co-written by Davis and Stitt. The two musical frenemies start in perfect unison before the “battle” gets rolling. Davis goes first, ornamenting with increasing intensity until he winds up in his upper register before Stitt takes over. The organ of Doc Bagby provides a through line.


  1. Track: “Skillet”
    Album: The Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis Cookbook, Vol. 2
    Label: Prestige
    Year: 1958

The three-volume series of Cookbook albums find Davis playing with organist Shirley Scott and flutist/baritone saxophonist Jerome Richardson. George Duvivier is on bass and Arthur Edgehill the drummer. Besides their work in the studio, this quintet also toured for a few years until Scott turned to other pursuits.

Because “Skillet” is co-written by Davis and Scott, it is an ideal vehicle for demonstrating the special sound they developed by combining their styles. As was pointed out by jazz critics at the time, an important factor is Scott’s light touch at the Hammond B3, preventing Davis from having to overblow. It’s also a patient collaboration: In this track, Davis doesn’t come in until the 3:34 mark.


  1. Track: “Very Saxy”
    Album: Very Saxy
    Label: Prestige
    Year: 1959

The Prestige label assembled quite a lineup for this album. Davis is joined by three other great tenor saxophone players: Buddy Tate, Coleman Hawkins, and Arnett Cobb. Very saxy, indeed! The proceedings are held together by Davis’ usual Scott/Duvivier/Edgehill rhythm section.

The title tune, a co-composition of Davis and Duvivier, is a jump blues using the chord progression of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Its energy is reminiscent of the Count Basie sound, appropriately enough given that both Davis and Tate played in the Basie orchestra. The order of the solos: Tate, Cobb, Hawkins, Davis.


  1. Track: “Tin Tin Deo”
    Album: Afro-Jaws
    Label: Riverside
    Year: 1961

Percussionist Ray Barretto’s music provided an important bridge between Latin traditions like son montuno and son Cubano and the world of the jazz standard. His influence went beyond what is conventionally thought of as “Latin jazz.” On Afro-Jaws, Davis takes advantage of Barretto’s intricate rhythmic ear, embracing the Afro-Cuban sound in rich, blues-inspired interpretations of Latin jazz tunes.

Although most of the tracks on this album were composed by salsa pianist Gil Lopez, “Tin Tin Deo” is by Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, known for the tunes he wrote for Dizzy Gillespie’s band. Trumpeter Clark Terry is as much a part of the percussion as Barretto’s impossibly complicated conga patterns; Davis, on the other hand, keeps it cool. The polyrhythms he calmly swims against starting at 3:59 are mind-bending.


  1. Track: “Straight, No Chaser”
    Album: The Tenor Scene
    Label: Prestige
    Year: 1961

The Tenor Scene is one of many albums Davis made with saxophonist Johnny Griffin and pianist Junior Mance. As is true for a large swath of Davis’ catalog, he chose to collaborate with another tenor sax player rather than with soprano, alto, or baritone. He must have liked the blend of more than one tenor, not to mention the challenge of trading solos with someone on the same instrument.

Here they are wrapping themselves around Thelonious Monk’s 1951 classic, “Straight, No Chaser.” The sly arrangement has the two horns landing hard on the dissonance in each subphrase.


  1. Track: “A Gal in Calico”
    Album: Jawbreakers
    Label: Riverside
    Year: 1962

Davis did several collaborative albums with trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, whom Davis would have first become familiar with for his work in Basie’s orchestra. However, the two never worked in that group together. Basie temporarily disbanded in 1950, at which point Edison ended his run there. Davis was in the next wave, when the orchestra started up again.

“A Gal in Calico” is an Arthur Schwartz standard from the 1940s. Edison and Davis have a simpatico swing style; you can practically hear the lyrics through their horns. The commanding bass part is by Ike Isaac.


  1. Track: “If I Ruled the World”
    Album: Love Calls
    Label: RCA Victor
    Year: 1968

Love Calls is yet another duo recording with a fellow tenor saxophone player. In the hot seat this time is Paul Gonzalves, credited with bringing a surge of vitality (and record sales) to Duke Ellington’s big band during the 1950s, when things were looking bleak for that group. Before that, he’d been with Basie and Gillespie.

As one might guess from the album title, these are sexy arrangements of romantic songs. This version of “If I Ruled the World,” by Leslie Bricusse, is arranged in an unusual way: Rather than setting out the melody straight and then trading improvisations, Gonzalves plays the tune in a smooth, sultry tone while at the same time Davis improvises around him with a brighter, almost shimmering sound.


  1. Track: “Wave”
    Album: Swingin’ Till the Girls Come Home
    Label: SteepleChase
    Year: 1976

Like many jazz musicians in the 1960s and ʼ70s, Davis turned to studios and festivals in Northern Europe to keep his career afloat when rock music started sucking up all the industry dollars in the US. He recorded Swingin’ Till the Girls Come Home in Denmark with an all-Danish quartet: pianist Thomas Clausen, bassist Bo Stief, and drummer Axel Riel.

Although the album consists mostly of American popular standards, Davis included a dash of Brazilian flavor with “Wave,” by Antõnio Carlos Jobim. With the way Davis’ melody dances from phrase to phrase, one might think he’d been born in Rio instead of Harlem.


Header image: Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, The Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis Cookbook, Vol. 2, album cover.

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