In 1993, Sa Davis submitted this account of his life in music as a backgrounder for composing his faculty biography. We reproduce it here in its entirety.
My lifelong association with music began at an early age. At seven years old, I commenced on an elementary study of the piano, and soon progressed to voice, as a part of the Twelfth Baptist Church youth choir, where I received my first real experience with public speaking and vocal performance. My membership in this choir lasted over four years, just until the summer before my twelfth birthday, when my voice changed from soprano in range to something less than a natural singing voice.
My first drum instructor was someone I met while I was working in my uncle's barbershop, a drummer named Tony Pryor, who was a member of the Nine Lords, a very popular vocal group peforming in Boston at that time. He lived in my area, and at the age of ten he had me working out of Stick Control for the Snare Drummer by George L. Stone. This sparked my interest in snare drumming, which led to my first set of drums and on to a group I helped form and name, the Junior Esquires, named after the Esquires, a group with a Top Ten hit recording of "Expressway to Your Heart." Our repertoire was composed of this song, along with other rhythm and blues classics of that era. We were a trio and all students at the same junior high school. We performed for parties, dances, and occasional school functions.
My parents were impressed with my continued interest in music, and found that there was only a minimal level of music education taught in the school that I was attending. Beginning in the seventh grade, they supplemented my education with courses in music theory and private instruction on percussion.
About three semesters later, I met Ran Blake, a noted composer, teacher, and performer. While I was enrolled in the extension division of the New England Conservatory of Music, he took me on as a student and changed my scope of music forever. Although he was not a percussionist, he was the first person to get me involved in listening to music as a personal tool for musical development, which exposed me to a world of music that was part of my cultural heritage.
Ran Blake was one of my first music teachers that did not look upon black music as something that was popular but illegitimate when compared to the classics of European music. He was also the person who introduced me to the music of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Stan Kenton, Jeanne Lee, and Chris Connor, as well as his own compositions. In retrospect, I introduced him to the music of Sly Stone, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix.
My early years at the Conservatory were the catalyst that propelled me into a career in music. In my final years of high school, my classmates at the Conservatory were a "Who's Who" of the local, national, and international music scene, many of whom have gone on to be well-respected and endeared musicians and composers in their own right.
Upon completing high school in 1973, I enrolled myself in the applied music program in the jazz department at the Conservatory. At this time I was fascinated with the simple but complex, rhythmic but melodic music that the conga drum produced. When I was seventeen years old I began looking for other ways to express rhythmic ideas that were not limited to the trap set of snare drum.
The conga drum and Afro-Cuban music served to be the perfect vehicle for such ideas, and I began a lifelong expedition to bring the music of Cuba and U.S.A. into interpretation. Also in 1973, I formed the New World Percussion Ensemble, a group of five percussionists who had varied skills in African, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Brazilian percussion as well as percussion music of the United States. We performed music from all of these cultures for a two-year period in just about every setting imaginable, from the concert hall to the classroom.
While I was continuing my education on many different levels, there were two individuals that had a big influence on my musical outlook. They are Webster Lewis and Jaki Byard. My experience with Webster ranged from performing in his band on occasion to being a member in an 80-piece orchestra that he led and conducted. Jaki Byard taught the first arranging class in which I took part, and also led ensemble classes in which I participated. The high point of my association with these respected artists was a concert with a band that had a personnel of Max Roach on drums, Archie Shepp on tenor sax, Richard Reid on bass, Webster Lewis on organ, Jaki Byard on alto sax and piano, and myself on percussion. Although it was a one-time event at Tufts University in the fall of 1974, I felt it indicated the highest honor a mentor could bestow on a student, the opportunity to function as a peer. 1974 was a very prdouctive year for me in and out of school. That year I made many musical advances that would pave the way for the rest of my career.
In the spring of 1974, I met and performed with one of the most renowned trumpeters of all time, Freddie Hubbard, who more than any single musician had the biggest impact on my career. Less than one year later, Freddie approached me to become a member of his group, and in the fall of 1975 I left my studies at New England Conservatory to become a permanent member of his band and tour worldwide from 1975 until 1978. I performed in the Newport, Schaefer, Kool, Boston Globe, and Monterey Jazz and Pop festivals, and in a list too lengthy to mention them all here at this time. In 1976 I performed twice to a standing room only audience at Carnegie Hall in New York City with Freddie Hubbard, George Benson, and Stanley Turrentine.
In 1979 I moved to New York City, where I performed and recorded with Marlena Shaw, Hilary, and CBS Records. In 1981 I moved to France in the city of Toulouse, where I toured the south of France. After living in France, I moved back to Boston to form my own group, and in 1983 I went from being a bandleader to an in-demand studio musician, recording in situations that range from motion picture soundtracks to producing sound effects for films like The Brother from Another Planet; from television soundtracks and appearances to being featured on Grammy nominee recordings.
In 1985 I became a member of Billy Cobham's Glass Menagerie as well as recording on all four of his GRP records. The second, Powerplay, was a 1986–1987 Grammy nominee in the Rhythm and Blues category. In the three and one-half years I was in his employ, I performed in seven world tours, and nine United States tours coast-to-coast.
Since 1980 I have been a faculty member of the extension division of the New England Conservatory of Music, and in 1989–1990 I joined NEC's College studio faculty.
In addition to giving private studio instruction in the span of my career, I have performed for hundreds of thousands of people on three continents, from Tokyo to Tel-Aviv. I have been recorded on more than forty albums and compact discs. I have made numerous appearances on local, national, and international television shows, including "The Arsenio Hall Show," PBS programs such as "Nova" and "Adventure," and many radio appearances worldwide. I am a founding member of the John Coltrane Memorial Ensemble, and since August of 1990, I have been in the employ of Lalah Hathaway as a percussionist in her group.
But of all the accomplishments I have made, the one that is the most rewarding is also my biggest musical challenge—composing new and exciting music for the family of conga drums—because the style in which I compose is at the vanguard of technical development for my instrument.
—Sa Davis, 16 June 1993