Jim Nash: Phantom of the Opera, Or Big Dog of Duke?

Emily Sirota-

Is there a harmonica player in the house? These are the words that renowned jazz pianist Harry Pickens ’81 shouted at last Friday’s jazz band concert. With his harmonica in hand and lucky Eagle-feather pendant around his neck, Jim Nash, the man mightily known as “Big Dog,” emerged from the shadows and into the center stage spotlight.

Jim once described himself to me as an “in the shadow guy.” He works in the shadows, quite literally, behind stage curtains. Jim’s behind-the-scenes work as the College’s Technical Director is often overlooked and underappreciated by audiences within his home-court, the Duke Family Performance Hall. He is one of Davidson College’s hidden gems, who’s daily work completes the “Davidson experience.” This shadowed hero has fascinating talents and stories to tell of his alluring past.

Jim picked up the harmonica at age 13 and has since mastered the art of grabbing air and pushing it out in a force of musical expression. He is most passionate about blues music, which he says “speaks to the soul” through “healing powers.” One of Jim’s favorite stories to tell is of the time he spent the evening with the musician and blues legend Muddy Waters himself.

Every afternoon, Jim wanders to the Baker Sports Complex where he suits up for an intense round of racquetball. Every Friday evening, he DJs from Davidson’s WALT radio studio, located on the top floor of the Alvarez Union. Jim’s first love was radio broadcasting, a hobby he has developed since age 16. Anyone interested can catch his radio show, co-hosted with his best friend and coworker, Alex Miller, every Friday from 3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. on WALT1610.com.

Hidden talents aside, Jim is full of interesting stories from his past in professional showbiz, where he supported acts including Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Kiss, and Aerosmith. He even worked on major motion pictures including Shallow Hal.

The journey for Jim to realize this career-calling was prolonged. Before showbiz, he wandered down different trails. Jim paid for college himself. He then pursued a degree in law, built jet engines for General Electric, worked at Arlington National Cemetery as a historian, became a bouncer, and even served warrants and subpoenas to people. He did all these things until he realized he was not happy because he was not pursuing what he was certain he wanted to do his whole life: be a stagehand.

What Davidson had in store for Jim would change him. Before coming to Davidson in 2001, Jim would describe himself as, “grizzled, chiseled, and ready to rock and roll.” He soon traded his fast-paced roadie life for that of the slower, stage-paced Davidson College environment. He would grow his own stage crew, the best crew, which would become his family. He would dedicate his life to Davidson College, a community with which he quickly fell in love.

Jim started his personal career in technical services at the very bottom, where no one opened doors for him. He eventually worked his way through every position in the field up to technical director, his goal. Now at Davidson, one of the things Jim does best and most passionately is open doors in show business to people, particularly students.

Jim is proud to aid in the creation of student-run events, including dance recitals like Gamut, plays, musicals, concerts and Union Board’s Live Thursdays and Winterfest. He has also hosted famous speakers and touring musicians and artists; their personal autographs and gratitudes toward “Big Dog” decorate the hidden panel to the right of center stage.

While you might not have considered it before, some of the most emotional moments shared in the Davidson community are made possible by the technical expertise of Jim and his valuable crew members. Think of the honor code signing, the first time students are with a new class and away from their families. Think of graduation, the first time you are in a cap and gown for baccalaureate.

Jim Nash in the WALT office, photo by Erin Gross ’18

Jim Nash is my “cool uncle,” mentor, and life coach. We met through the WALT Student Radio Club, of which Jim has been the advisor for over 17 years. One day Freshman year I strolled up to his office’s front door. A music enthusiast myself, I was entranced by the room’s culture: on his desk lay a wooden Bob Dylan harmonica (his favorite) alongside stacks of colorful vinyl. On the shelf were vintage microphones accompanied by old photos of him and his Davidson family. Framed Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis posters, and the authentic “crew member” passes from worked concerts in his roadie-days caught my eye.

Jim’s greatest quality as a mentor and friend is his ability to empathetically “give it to you straight” until you realize your priorities. Jim has taught me that life is not about getting and having, but rather about giving and being. He has taught me the importance of paying a good deed forward and being true to yourself. Above all, Jim has taught me the unwavering value of a person’s honor and its intrinsic weight of respect.

The best kind of people are the ones who come into your life and help you see the positives where you see negatives. The people who believe in you so much that you start to believe in yourself, too. Jim is a man of many talents as well as a source of solace and compassion. I will forever cherish our talks about the timelessness of good music, how Taj Mahal’s song “Leaving Trunk” from 1968 is one of the most iconic blues performances of all-time, how to best manipulate air through the harmonica, and how the lyrics of the Youngbloods’ song “Get Together” resonate today as much as they did during the Vietnam War Era. I am also grateful for our talks, which have helped me to be a better person: how to be a successful radio show host, and especially on how to find a productive outlet in life’s turbulent moments. I am certainly not alone in saying Jim Nash is one of Davidson’s greatest gifts.

Emily Sirota ’20 is a Biology major and Digital Studies minor from Mamaroneck, New York. Contact her at emsirota@davidson.edu.

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