Classically-trained soprano Kay Davis was one of the more unusual band vocalists of the 1940s. Born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1920, Davis attended Northwestern University, where she earned a B.A. in music in 1942 and an M.A. in 1943. At a time when African-American students weren’t allowed to live on campus, Davis daringly sang a love song duet with a white male partner during one of the university’s annual shows.
After college, Davis auditioned for Duke Ellington on a dare from a friend. Ellington liked what he heard and attended one of her recitals, where he offered her a job. Lacking big band experience, she spent a week with Lionel Hampton’s orchestra at the Apollo in New York before becoming part of Ellington’s band in November 1944, where she joined Joya Sherrill and Marie Ellington as female vocalists.
As Davis had no training in jazz, Ellington made use of her talent in a unique way, often writing special compositions for her. She sang without words, using her voice as an instrument to provide countermelody. Her vocals came across as both elegant and haunting, and her performances on such songs as “The Creole Love Call” and “Transblucency” are among the most memorable in Ellington’s repertoire. She performed the former at Ellington’s December 1945 Carnegie Hall concert. Though she had little advanced notice to prepare, it became the highlight of the show.
During Ellington’s European tour of 1948, Davis and trumpeter/singer Ray Nance were the only two orchestra members to accompany Ellington on a four-week tour of Britain. British law at the time forbid jazz bands from entering the country, and Ellington was only able to circumvent the restriction by applying for entry as a pianist and cabaret performer, taking Davis and Nance with him under the same guise.
Davis remained with Ellington through the summer of 1950, when, by then only a stand-by singer, she retired from show business to marry Edward Wimp. The couple eventually settled down in Florida, where she became a trained Cordon Blue chef. Kay Davis passed away in 2012.