Obituaries: Roberta Davis, 61, jazz singer

  • Article by: LUCY Y. HER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 26, 1999 - 10:00 PM

St. Paul native Roberta Carrel Bruce Davis, an internationally recognized jazz singer, died last March 19 of diabetes-related complications at the Episcopal Church Home in St. Paul. She was 61.

"She truly was a fine teacher/coach and role model for other singers," said Leigh Kamman, host of "The Jazz Image" on Minnesota Public Radio. "She had demon ears and a great range of low, medium to high register. She was just outstanding."

He said Davis was a role model for singers in Asia and had performed at Italian jazz festivals before she was recognized in the United States.

Before she started singing jazz she was a classical vocalist and sang roles in musicals such as "Showboat" and "Porgy and Bess," said her daughter, Yolande Bruce of St. Paul, a member of the vocal group Moore by Four.

It was in 1971, when Davis sang with local saxophonist Irv Williams, that she decided to study jazz, Bruce said.

She won a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board in the mid-'70s and traveled to Europe.

"She was a tough teacher," Bruce said. But her mother was also "generous of spirit. She just wanted good musicianship."

In the 1980s she taught vocal music for a year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. In 1984 she was named to the Minnesota Commission on Economic Vitality in the Arts.

In the late 1980s she received a bachelor's degree from Metropolitan State University.

In an April 1980 article, a Minneapolis Tribune reviewer called Davis a "true jazz singer."

"She has an unerring sense of pitch that allows her to bend notes and phrases into the most intriguing and often unexpected shapes," Michael Anthony wrote.

She opened concerts for jazz giants such as Herbie Hancock, Roy Ayers, Ronnie Laws and Stanley Turrentine. She collaborated with the Irv Williams Quartet, Billy Higgins, Walter Booker Jr. and Monty Walters. Her latest work is a CD titled "The Best of Roberta Davis."

Bruce said her favorite memory of her mother was from the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, where Bruce performed with Moore by Four.

When Davis walked into the outdoor amphitheater, jazz singers such as Norman Simmons, Joe Williams and Carmen McRae called out to her.

"I was amazed that they all knew my mother," she said. "It gave me a great feeling."

Davis also is survived by two other daughters, Brooke Davis of Nashville and Leslie Smith of Leesville, La.; a sister, Myrna Lake of New York City; three brothers, Edward of St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands; Thomas of Minneapolis and Vincent Bruce of Minneapolis, and four grandchildren.

Services were held this week.

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