The music of resistance

How celebrated jazz pianist and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Anthony Davis ’69 is changing the narrative.

Sarah Pruitt '95
May 1, 2023
Composer Anthony Davis

On a late afternoon in mid-January, The David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center for Theater and Dance is quiet as Anthony Davis ’69 gets his first look around the building, which opened in 2018.

Soft-spoken, with curly gray hair and wire-framed glasses, he smiles easily as he admires the lighting and flexible seating options in the intimate performance space known as the Actors Lab. Times have changed, Davis acknowledges, since he took to Exeter’s stage as a senior in a production of The Threepenny Opera. “I don’t even remember where we performed that,” he says.

A search of Exonian archives reveals the 1969 production was performed in the old Dramat House, a renovated parish building behind Dunbar Hall. When Fisher Theater, the Goel Center’s predecessor, opened in 1972, Dramat House was renamed 3-D Hall; it was used to house drama and art classes until it was torn down in the early 1980s. Davis can be forgiven for not keeping track of Academy renovations over the years. He made this trip — his first back to Exeter’s campus since he graduated nearly 54 years ago — to deliver the keynote address for the school’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemoration.

A celebrated jazz pianist and composer, Davis has taught music at the University of California San Diego since 1996. His distinctive fusion of traditional operatic forms with more modern genres — particularly jazz — and his willingness to confront political and societal issues in his work propelled him to new heights in 2020, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for music for The Central Park Five. This fall, a revamped version of his first major opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, will premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

For the keynote, Davis addressed an all-school assembly in the Love Gym alongside his brother, Christopher “Kip” Davis ’71, a social researcher and educational reformer. The brothers talked about their formative experiences at Exeter and beyond, how they worked together on X and how the world, in the post-George Floyd era, is finally catching up to the composer’s trailblazing work.

“As artists, we can revisit and transform these stories and make these stories tell the stories we want to tell,” Davis told the students. “I think that’s what Martin Luther King envisioned for us, that we could have this potential to transform the world through our art, through our actions, through our activism.”

In eighth grade, Davis was one of a handful of Black students in his school in State College, Pennsylvania, where his father, Charles Davis, was an English professor at Penn State. He was passionately interested in history and politics at the time, and he was kicked out of his social studies class for questioning the definition of “communism” in the textbook.

We could have this potential to transform the world through our art.”
Anthony Davis ’69

Seeking a different learning experience, Davis applied to Exeter. He initially planned to matriculate as a lower but deferred his admission after his father won a Fulbright award to teach for a year in Italy. By the time he arrived at Exeter in the fall of 1967, Davis had fallen in love with jazz — particularly the work of Thelonius Monk — and had begun exploring his identity as a young Black man at a tumultuous time in the nation’s history. He remembers the school as a tight-knit community, where he made close friends in his dorm and had some great teachers, particularly in math and English.

“[Anthony] has always excelled academically, and he was really able to thrive at Exeter,” Christopher Davis remembers. Yet he also encountered prejudice. In one memorable example, Davis turned in a poem about the Acropolis, inspired by a visit to Greece during his father’s Fulbright year. His English teacher told him dismissively that he should write poems from his experience.

Davis continued to hone his musical identity at Exeter, expressing a passionate dislike for Brahms and challenging himself to improvise on the clarinet, saxophone and piano. By the time he graduated, he had begun pondering the possibilities of combining jazz and improvisation with the more formal structure of traditional opera — and the potential for music as an act of political resistance. “Music was so much a part of what I thought was the revolution,” he told the MLK Day audience. “The revolution that was coming.”

After his graduation from Yale University in 1975, Davis moved to New York City, where he spent time writing music for plays and choral poems by playwrights including

Ntozake Shange, author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and his cousin Thulani Davis. “That was developing the idea of how words flow to music,” Davis says. “From there, it wasn’t that big a step to start setting words to music.”

In 1986, the New York City Opera premiered his first opera X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, with a libretto written by Thulani Davis. “Anthony and I were both fans of John Coltrane, who underwent a whole spiritual journey that’s reflected in his music,” says Christopher Davis, a story writer for X. “That paralleled for us the spiritual journey of Malcolm X, including his conversion to Orthodox Islam and changing his name to Malik el-Shabazz.”

Davis’ subsequent operas drew on history as well, covering topics as diverse as the kidnaping of heiress Patricia Hearst (1992’s Tania), the historical mutiny of enslaved Africans aboard a slave ship (1997’s Amistad) and a Native American family in Nebraska (2007’s Wakonda’s Dream). In 2016, he began writing what would become The Central Park Five. With a libretto by Richard Wesley, the opera dramatizes the arrest, trial and imprisonment of five Black and Latino teenagers for the brutal rape and beating of a female jogger in New York City in 1989 —and their ultimate exoneration in 2002 based on DNA evidence and a confession by the culprit. After extensive revisions, The Central Park Five was performed in its entirety at the Long Beach Opera in 2019, receiving a glowing critical reception. Mark Swed, classical music critic for the Los Angeles Times, praised Davis’ “special blend of eloquence and unblinking righteousness.” Of the opera itself, Swed wrote: “He puts a good deal of what makes American music American in his score, particularly roiling jazz. The growling trombone and heckling trumpet could be characters themselves.”

The opera’s success— and particularly the announcement of Davis’ Pulitzer win in May 2020 — undoubtedly helped fuel interest in a revival of X, featuring a tightened structure with only one intermission. In the fall of 2021, the Metropolitan Opera announced that a new production of Davis’ first major work would debut on its stage on November 3, 2023. It will be only the second opera by a Black composer to be performed at the Met, after Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which opened in 2021.

Helmed by Tony-nominated director Robert O’Hara, the new production premiered in Detroit last May. A recording made a month later at a performance of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Though Davis has been exploring themes of social injustice and resistance since the beginning of his music career — not to mention creating roles in operatic works for talented Black performers — he recognizes a shift in the past few years in the way his work has been received. He attributes this in part to George Floyd, a Black man who was killed publicly in police custody early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the widespread movement for racial justice and equity his death sparked.

“There was a time when there was a real dichotomy between jazz and classical music,” Davis says. “That’s been changing for a number of years, but I think what’s happened in the last few years has challenged classical music to reposition itself. ...I think it’s a sense of reevaluating what’s important, who it’s representing and what the future of classical music is going to be.”

“The audience is really responding to the music,” Davis says of the new production of X. “When we did it in 1986, I remember Thomas Young [the lyric tenor who starred in the original X] saying, ‘This is so far ahead of its time.’ But now, I think people have kind of caught up with us."


This story was originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

Anthony Davis' Revolutionary Playlist

Listen to the playlist at Spotify

We Insist!: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite  
Max Roach featuring Abbey Lincoln 

John Coltrane

Black, Brown & Beige 
(The 1944-1946 Band Recordings)  

Duke Ellington and his Orchestra featuring Joya Sherrill

“A Tone Parallel to Harlem (Harlem Suite)” from Ellington Uptown (1951)  
Duke Ellington

“Praying With Eric (Meditations on Integration)” from Town Hall Concert, 1964  
Charles Mingus

A Love Supreme  
John Coltrane

Ten Freedom Summers  
Wadada Leo Smith

X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X  
Anthony Davis  
(libretto by Thulani Davis)