Kay Davis

Photo of Kay Davis
  • Birth Name

    Kathryn McDonald
  • Born

    December 5, 1920
    Evanston, Illinois
  • Died

    January 27, 2012 (age 91)
    Apopka, Florida
  • Orchestras

    Duke Ellington

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 typically 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. Ellington featured Davis at each of his annual Carnegie Hall concerts and Chicago Opera House concerts during her time with the orchestra. For 1946, Down Beat magazine readers voted her second best female band vocalist in the magazine’s annual poll.

When Ellington took his band to Europe in 1948, Davis was the only female vocalist he included. During that tour, she and trumpeter/singer Ray Nance were the only two members of his unit to accompany Ellington for four weeks in 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 until July 1950, when, by that time only a stand-by singer, she retired from show business to marry Edward Wimp, a lieutenant colonel in the Illinois National Guard. In 1953, she reportedly came out of retirement to sign with Tiffany Records. She and her husband eventually settled in Florida, where she became a trained Cordon Blue chef. Kay Davis passed away in 2012.


  1. Stratemann, Klaus. Duke Ellington, Day by Day, Film by Film Copenhagen, Jazz Media, 1992.
  2. “Ellington Concert Sell-out In Chicago.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1945: 1.
  3. “Philly Earle Turnstiles Click 37G Tune for Duke.” Billboard 15 Sep. 1945: 37.
  4. “Carnegie Concert Has Below Par Ellington.” Down Beat 28 Jan. 1946: 3.
  5. “Ellington Fails To Top Himself!” Down Beat 16 Dec. 1946: 2.
  6. “Analyzing Band Poll.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1947: 17.
  7. “Ellington Pleases Concert Crowd.” Down Beat 14 Jan. 1948: 3.
  8. “Music as Written.” Billboard 19 Jun. 1948: 21.
  9. “Vaudeville Reviews: Palladium, London.” Billboard 3 Jul. 1948: 44.
  10. Borneman, Ernest. “The Duke in Paris, Part 1.” Down Beat 25 Aug. 1948: 6.
  11. Borneman, Ernest. “The Duke in Paris, Part 2.” Down Beat 8 Sep. 1948: 6.
  12. Egan, Jack. “Webster In Royal Return To Duke.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1948: 1.
  13. Hoefer, George. “Ellington's Annual Chicago Concert A Gala Evening.” Down Beat 10 Mar. 1950: 7.
  14. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 8 Sep. 1950: 5.
  15. “Tied Notes.” Down Beat 8 Sep. 1950: 10.
  16. “Mercer Ellington Starts Disc Firm.” Down Beat 22 Sep. 1950: 2.
  17. “R & B Blue Notes.” Billboard 23 Sep. 1950: 39.
  18. “New Waxery, Tiffany, Makes Auspicious Bow.” Down Beat 23 Sep. 1953: 22.
  19. Voce, Steve. “Kay Davis: Singer who worked with Duke Ellington.” The Independent [London, England, United Kingdom] 28 Feb. 2012. Accessed: 29 Mar. 2018.