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Jordyn Davis fights for her dreams in music

She's the first African-American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree in composition from MSU

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To listen to one of Jordyn Davis’ original compositions is to take a day trip through the mountain ranges of personal growth when the blazing sun and shadowy moonlight illuminate the forces of life-altering change. Her journey to rediscovering her deepest passion involved years of being told she could never be a professional musician.

“Before I came to MSU, I had people tell me, ‘Music isn’t a thing you can do,’” said Davis, a jazz bassist and composer. “Eighteen-year-old me was such a nervous and shy individual who really wanted to be involved with music and have my voice heard, but at the time, I felt like I needed to focus on what I thought I should be doing.”

After being told that the bass wasn’t a “real instrument” and that she was unfit for the MSU College of Music, she continued to fight to make a place for herself. On Sunday, Davis became the first African-American woman to receive a bachelor of music degree in composition in the history of the College of Music. She is also the first person to graduate with a B.M. in composition and jazz studies at the same time.

Davis, 24, grew up in Westland, where she could have taken the path paved by the line of military brats in her family. All throughout middle school and high school, Davis was the only bass player in the school band. Growing up, although she couldn’t afford formal music lessons, she developed a breadth of musical interests and started a music blog. She played electric bass in a rock band her senior year, but she had to quit when she moved to East Lansing to study environmental engineering at MSU.

Toward the end of her sophomore year, Davis went on an alternative spring break trip. She bonded with her fellow travelers through jam sessions where she performed original songs. The once closeted lyricist was empowered by the positive feedback she received and began the process of rerouting her academic plans.

“I had always dreamed of being a composer and scoring films, but I didn’t know there were resources for me to do those things at MSU,” Davis said.

As a beginner, Davis said composition Professor Mark Sullivan was fundamental in her development as a songwriter. Sullivan encouraged her to audition for the College of Music. However, considering she had never taken formal bass lessons before MSU, the audition didn’t go well. Davis broke the news to Sullivan, who introduced her to Rodney Whitaker, the director of jazz studies and a renowned bass player.

Davis said Whitaker instantly recruited her, and she started taking lessons with him in fall 2016. While feeling one step closer to her dream, jumping into one of the most competitive jazz programs in the country was “devastating.”

“It was easy to get caught up in comparing myself and being insecure of my knowledge and understanding of this music,” Davis said.

She added that she was also one of the few people “running their own business,” referring to the band she formed at MSU, called Composetheway, “while working three jobs and paying to support themselves in school.”

If there is anything to know about Davis, it’s that she is willing to sacrifice just about any luxury and even essentials, such as sleep, to accomplish her goals. Her unwavering desire to master the bass and also get a degree in composition stunned the dean of the music college. After studying jazz for three months, she presented the college administrators with a three-year course schedule that fulfilled the requirements for a B.M. in composition and jazz studies.

Music College adviser Talitha Trout said students have always been discouraged from combining the two majors due to the heavy workload. She said Davis was unique in her ability to start the necessary conversations between the two departments and asking the right questions.

“One thing about Jordyn is she is not just smart or talented. She cares about other people and how her music affects people,” Trout said.

Trout added that Davis was instrumental in mentoring fellow jazz students, especially women, who are the minority in the program.

In 2017, Davis released the debut EP, “Connections,” for her neo-soul band, which she described as the “purest form of my expression.” In 2018, she gave a TED Talk at MSU about how the project helped her foster meaningful connections with people.

The musician’s lifetime goal is to start a nonprofit that allows young girls to study music and prepare for jobs in the music industry while also teaching them their responsibility to the environment.

In the fall, she will return to MSU to get her master’s in jazz studies while serving as a graduate assistant to the department. For the next two years, Davis plans to focus on improving her playing and developing Composetheway.

“In one of my songs I say, ‘I’m dying if I’m not changing,’” Davis said as she reflected on her six years at MSU. “My family, people who have pushed me and the people who have made me feel the worst about myself have helped me become the best version of myself at this point. I’m thankful for all of it.”

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