Thomas L. Davis was faced with a difficult choice when he completed his master’s degree at Northwestern University in 1958. As a member of Dick Schory’s Percussion Pops Orchestra, he was a recording artist for RCA and was touring the country. One of Chicago’s top radio orchestras had offered him a position. Then another job offer arrived from Iowa: influential musician and educator Himie Voxman was building the music program at The University of Iowa and wanted Tom Davis to teach percussion. At that time there were no more than a half-dozen percussion jobs at the university level. Tom moved to Iowa with wife Pat for “a couple of years” and ended up retiring from The University of Iowa after 38 years..
By 1959, Mr. Davis had enough percussion students to form the Concert Percussion Ensemble – then one of only a handful of university percussion groups. He formed the Iowa Percussion Octette in 1967, one of the first university percussion ensembles to release an LP record. In the early 1970s, Mr. Davis established the UI jazz area, which he headed until 1990. He even led the Hawkeye Marching Band.
Thomas L. Davis wrote many compositions and arrangements for an array of instruments, but perhaps his most important contributions are his works for percussion. In the mid-1960s when little repertoire existed for percussion ensembles, Mr. Davis penned dozens of original compositions and arrangements for percussion that have become standard in the repertoire, a number of which exhibit his well-known sense of humor.
That sense of humor was on display during a memorable UI football halftime show. Not to be outdone by the Purdue University Band’s “world’s largest marching bass drum,” Mr. Davis worked with a local manufacturer so that the Hawkeye Band could march onto the field with “the world’s largest marching triangle.” The 2-foot steel instrument is still part of Iowa Percussion’s collection, kept in an undisclosed secure location.
Those lucky enough to have played Mau Mau Suite, Bossa Novacaine, or a selection from the enduring Recital for Vibraharp are aware of Mr. Davis’s percussive panache.
In 1996, when Mr. Davis retired from the University of Iowa, 38 years of alumni and former students honored him by creating an endowed scholarship, which Mr. Davis requested be awarded to percussion majors. Contributions to The Thomas L. Davis Percussion Award can be made through the University of Iowa Foundation.