Former longtime Detroit Pistons owner William Davidson’s legacy is in good hands. His son’s hands, to be exact. Ethan Davidson is an active presence in metro Detroit’s artistic and cultural community, working diligently on behalf of the William Davidson Foundation to promote economic and cultural vitality from southeast Michigan to Israel.
But that wasn’t always his plan.
From the late 1990s through early 2000s, Davidson was touring the world as a musician, playing 150 shows a year for more than six years. He credits his interest in music to his involvement in Lahser High School’s rock band, the Chrisco Band. His English teacher, Bill Chrisman, the band’s leader, said he’d teach Davidson how to play Motown songs as long as he also read the assigned readings for his class. That incentive paid off, with Davidson playing bass for several bands and releasing 10 solo albums. Now, he says, music is “more of a hobby,” although he still releases albums and can be found performing as a singer-songwriter from Detroit to Rome to Jerusalem.
He “quit that life about 15 years ago when I came back to help get the William Davidson Foundation started,” Davidson said.
At the time, Davidson thought that “I was just gonna help get this thing set up and then go back to touring the world as a professional musician.” However, after his father’s death, the family foundation quickly became Davidson’s “number one priority after my wife and kids.”
The foundation has granted approximately $400 million throughout metro Detroit over the past decade, but Davidson notes that “we follow his [father’s] philosophy of not putting his name up there in lights.”
Davidson is personally philanthropic as well. Earlier this fall, he was named chair of the board of the Michigan Opera Theatre, where a key focus is community engagement. “We’re so lucky to have one of the most beautiful opera houses in the country. We have a great space, and we want the community to understand that it’s their house.” Under the direction of David DiChiera, MOT’s late founder, the opera company has been a forerunner when it comes to presenting diversity on stage – the “performers really represent Detroit” – and has been recognized nationally for its efforts.
Making operas that date back hundreds of years relevant to a contemporary audience is particularly exciting. Noting the recent performance of Mozart’s classic Don Giovanni, in which the protagonist commits sexual violence against women and is later condemned to Hell, Davidson asked how they could take this “morally troubling” story and have a conversation in the community around violence against women.
“How do we have a conversation around this piece of art? I’d like for us to be at those conversations.”
Connecting with contemporary audiences is key for Davidson. As he looks to bring more from the opera outside of the majestic hall, including presenting works by young and upcoming composers in smaller theaters and bars throughout Detroit, he continually sees opportunities to bring awareness to Detroit’s musical legacies. That includes Motown Museum’s forthcoming new campus, which he says will “transform this whole West Grand Boulevard neighborhood while supporting one of the world’s most important brands.”
Photo: Laurie Tennent