TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Interacting with students and teaching at Northeastern State University brought forth a new chapter in the life of the late music legend Joe Davis.
According to his wife, Ginny, as his life turned on him, he realized what it did mean to him to be here, and what he had accomplished.
"He'd been brought up to work hard. He had 40 students and gigs in Tulsa and Branson and other places. It was the kids who really turned him around and he really enjoyed the students," she said.
Holly Stocks Sisk was a member of the original River City Band in 1983, and played saxophone in one of Joe Davis' jazz bands at NSU.
"Joe and C.H. Parker wrote a part just for me," said Sisk. "I served several years as a River City Player in many different capacities while working alongside Joe. I was in the RCP band many different years, was a cast member, and ran the box office and was house manager."
Along with accompanying many of Davis' clarinet and saxophone students through the years, Sisk spent many hours with Davis in a wide range of situations.
"He was definitely one of the greats. And how lucky was I to be here and to have learned so much from him!" she said.
The late Jacob Farinelli, a gifted upright bass player, was another one of those students.
"We came here in '88, from Houston, but Jacob was in his second year at the High School for Performing Arts in a jazz program that was hard to get into, so he stayed there with his aunt and uncle. But he missed his family and we missed him," said Dr. Carl Farinelli, Jacob's dad.
As luck would have it, Farinelli had met Joe Davis, who advised him that high school band in Tahlequah wouldn't be enough for Jacob.
"Joe knew Jacob's teacher in Houston - they'd gone to college together - so Joe called him," Farinelli said. "When I saw Joe, he told me, 'Your son's quite a player. If Jacob comes to the high school, he can come sit in with us at the jazz band at the end of the day.'"
After talking to former Tahlequah High School Band Director Harvey Price, Farinelli found him supportive. Price even let Jacob put together a jazz combo at the high school.
"Joe and Harvey were like two angels sent our way, and Jacob's instructor told him he would get to play more in Tahlequah than he ever would in Houston," said Farinelli. "After a couple of weeks, Joe called me: 'You know how good Jacob is? I know he's only a sophomore in high school, but would you mind Jake playing with me on some gigs? It's hard to get a good bass player, especially one of Jacob's caliber.'"
Farinelli mentioned Dr. Lowell Lehman.
"Bless his heart, he played string bass in the Shangri La Orchestra, and when he had surgery, he asked Jacob to fill in for him. Lowell had highly recommended him, and the orchestra director singled him out to the audience, saying, 'You don't see many young people who play so well and know all the standard jazz charts,'" he said. "It may sound like I'm bragging on Jacob, but I'm really bragging on the spirit of that program. Joe, Lowell and Harvey had different musical styles, but they bent over backward to help him. Talk about a warm, nurturing environment for young musicians."
Farinelli said Davis was an "angel spirit."
"When kids belong and feel nurtured, they do better. That's the story of the arts, especially in this community," he said. "[Former NSU President] Roger Webb saw the value of arts in education. He wanted to see the college of education sparkle, so he made sure the arts program sparkled."
When Jake died onstage during a performance of the River City Players, Webb supplied a team to nurture the grieving father.
"Roger liked to organize teams for projects, and he sent Dr. Ross Underwood, Dr. Jim Walker, Cody Caldwell and Ken Caughman to check on me and make sure we were all OK - not just once, but regularly," said Farinelli. "Then Roger started the Jacob Farinelli Scholarship Fund. And when Joe died, he asked if it was OK to combine the two in the scholarship."
Bass player and professional musician Jim Loftin played in River City, about a decade all in all.
"I studied with Mike Moore, and Joe came in as an adjunct teacher the year before Moore quit. He and Mike took me out on paid gigs early on when I was 19 or 20. Joe taught me everything about being a functioning, gigging musician," said Loftin. "Joe was really good a giving us practical applications and taught the right things to do, like respect the old cats."
Loftin admits he was amazed that Davis could play anything.
"He could take the instruments from us - any of us - and outplay us. I played gigs with him playing drums, keys, and, most often, the sax," he said. "He was funny, really smart, an intelligent cat."
Loftin recalls one time walking in while Davis was on the phone, talking to "Kenny."
"That time, it was Kenny Rogers. He played on the Doobie Brother's first album, with the Tractors and a lot of people," Loftin said. "It was easy to let him be the teacher because he'd done everything."