Meet Katherine Davis
2009 Odyssey Project Graduate and Smart Museum Docent
Even by telephone, Katherine Davis’s voice envelopes you. That’s not surprising, given that the celebrated blues singer and Odyssey Project graduate has performed around the world for 40 years.
While her music career took her from Tokyo to Istanbul, it was Odyssey that brought her home to the classroom in 2008.
“I came up during the Civil Rights movement,” Katherine said of her childhood in Chicago’s Cabrini Green public housing project. She was a spelling bee champion, but was given the message that college wasn’t for kids like her. “As a black student I was told that you’re going to work in a factory or be a cleaning lady or cook. You didn’t need to go to school for that.”
Fortunately, music provided its own kind of education. She came from a musical family—her grandfather performed with Louis Armstrong and Count Basie—and transitioned from singing in church choirs to singing in South Chicago’s famed blues clubs. Soon she was touring around the world and meeting people from different cultures and places. “What was in the books, I got to see with my own eyes,” she said.
She also developed Blues in the Schools, a program in which Katherine works with fourth graders, telling the story of Chicago through its music. She especially likes to introduce her students to women of the blues like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, figures that have influenced her own music and stand in contrast to an industry often ruled by men. The students learn the 12-bar blues pattern, basic harmonic, and dancing, and they perform with Katherine each year at the Chicago Blues Festival, a chorus of 100 backing her on the stage.
For this transformative work, she was awarded the 2020 Esteemed Artist Award by the City of Chicago.
It was Katherine’s late husband who brought her the information about Odyssey, knowing she’d always hoped to return to more formal education. Her touring schedule had made it difficult for her to commit to school, but the flexibility she found in Odyssey, along with the opportunity to share the classroom with a group of adult students committed to learning, made it the right fit.
“A lot of great people have come through Odyssey, people of all professions and ages who took this opportunity to be exposed to higher education. There’s no excuse in Odyssey for saying, ‘Oh, this is too much,’” she said. “It was encouraging. It was inspiring. You’re introduced to people and museums and you learn to appreciate art and to appreciate yourself more. It elevates your life.”
After Odyssey, Katherine returned to touring, but a few years later, she connected through the program to the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago, training to be a docent and lead museum tours. She loves helping children experience art through their own eyes and perspectives, guiding them through the kinds of questions she was asked as a student in Odyssey, questions that prioritize close looking and curiosity.
“I’ve learned all of this from the Odyssey Project,” Katherine said. “When I was there in 2008, I really didn’t know that it would bring me this far, but I am so happy about it.”
Today Katherine’s Odyssey Project graduation certificate hangs on the wall alongside her other awards. Her powerful voice can be heard in many places in the city – at the Smart Museum, through Blues in the Schools, and on the other side of the pandemic, hopefully back on the stage. She’s proud to say that all of her grandchildren have gone to college, and she encourages people to pursue not only their educations, but their dreams.
“Find your seed and nourish it,” she advises. “Feed it, give it sunlight, and let it grow.”