Percy H. McDavid, jazz musician and instructor, was born in Houston on January 9, 1909, to migrants Fountain L. and Amanda McDavid, a physician and school teacher, respectively. Like many upper middle-class African Americans around the turn of the century, he grew up in the Fourth Ward. Possibly sheltered from much of the brutality of racial segregation, Percy and his brothers, Troy and Russell, knew they could rely on their role-model parents and grandparents for motivation as they pursued their dreams. The McDavid brothers learned to read music as children and began performing professionally while attending Booker T. Washington High School and college. Percy attended Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University), and Russell went to Samuel Huston College (later merged to become Huston-Tillotson University), with both garnering reputations for their musical abilities before beginning their teaching careers. After earning a bachelor’s degree, pianist Percy McDavid, along with older brother Russell, who also graduated from college, began teaching music at Wheatley High School in the early 1930s.
Music students at Phillis Wheatley High School, including jazz artists Illinois and Russell Jacquet and Arnett Cobb, received excellent music training. Percy McDavid, often compared to famed music teacher Walter Henri Dyett of Chicago’s DaSable High School, had much to do with the school’s success. McDavid cultivated the talents of young artists and motivated youths to remain in school, study music, form bands, invest in instruments, and achieve success in their careers. Percy McDavid, according to Houston music critic John Lomax, was one of the few music teachers in the nation who taught jazz to orchestra students. So popular was Wheatley’s jazz program under McDavid’s direction that Duke Ellington visited the school in 1935. According to music student Riche Dell (the younger sister of jazz artist Tom Archia) in a 1998 interview, “[Duke Ellington’s] visit was our first from a [famous] person….[Luckily] the band knew all his tunes.” This kind of exposure helped shine a national spotlight on Wheatley, its teachers, and gifted Wheatley music students.
Not surprisingly, by the end of the 1930s school districts outside the South sought after McDavid, no doubt influencing his decision to leave his hometown in 1937. The McDavid brothers became music teachers in the Kansas City, Kansas, Independent School District. Percy McDavid taught in the Kansas City schools for a decade. He also returned to the classroom as a student and earned a master’s degree from the University of Southern California in 1941. During World War II he served in the military; he enlisted in 1942 and was released from service in 1945.
By the late 1940s McDavid had moved to Los Angeles, where he taught at Lafayette Junior High School. Horace Tapscott was one of his students there. McDavid also led his own big band, a community jazz band that performed on Sundays in parks throughout the city. The orchestra, which remained popular into the 1960s, included, at various times, such jazzmen as Charlie Mingus, Buddy Collette, Eric Dolphy, and Red Callender, as well as some of McDavid’s students and other up-and-comers. In the 1950s McDavid became supervisor of music for the Los Angeles Independent School District and also helped integrate (along with pianist–arranger Marl Young) two musician unions with affiliations with the American Federation of Musicians in Los Angeles. He had a lasting impact on his schools and students from Houston to Kansas City to Los Angeles.
Until his death on May 2, 1975, in Los Angeles, McDavid trained thousands of music students and sent many to college to continue their love for music.
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Clora Bryant et. al., eds., Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). Reginald T. Buckner, “The History of Music Education in the Black Community Kansas City, Kansas, 1905–1954,” Journal of Research in Music Education 30 (1982). Steven Louis Isoardi, The Dark Tree: Jazz and the Community Arts in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006). Jet, July 9, 1953. Horace Tapscott, with Steven Isoardi, ed., Songs of the Unsung: The Musical and Social Journey of Horace Tapscott (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2001). Robb Walsh, “The Nickel Burger,” Houston Press, October 31, 2002. Marl Young, “Amalgamation of Local 47 and 767,” Professional Musicians Local 47 (http://promusic47.org/amalgamation.htm), accessed June 18, 2013.
Music and Drama
Texas Post World War II
Upper Gulf Coast
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Bernadette Pruitt, Ph.D.,
“McDavid, Percy H.,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 13, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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