In 1958, Davis was a founding member of Dick Schory's Percussion Pops Orchestra and a recording artist for RCA. In demand as a musician in Chicago, he had just been offered a position with one of the city's top radio orchestras when influential musician and educator Himie Voxman asked him to become the University of Iowa's first Professor of Percussion. At that time there were no more than a half-dozen university-level percussion jobs in the country. Davis and his wife, Pat, moved to Iowa City "for a couple of years." That couple of years turned into a 38-year tenure at the University of Iowa.
By 1959, Davis had enough percussion students to form the Concert Percussion Ensemble – then one of only a handful of university percussion groups. He formed the Iowa Percussion Octette in 1967, one of the first university percussion ensembles to release an LP record. In the early 1970s, Davis established the Iowa jazz area, which he headed until 1990. He also led the Hawkeye Marching Band.
Davis wrote many compositions and arrangements for an array of instruments, but most important are his works for percussion. In the mid-1960s, little repertoire existed for percussion ensemble. Davis penned dozens of original compositions and arrangements for percussion that became standard in the repertoire, influencing generations of young percussionists. A number of these works exhibit Davis's well-known sense of humor. He was also the author of Voicing and Comping for Jazz Vibraphone, published by Hal Leonard in 1999.
That sense of humor became legendary during a memorable Iowa football halftime show. Knowing that the Purdue University Marching Band would be flaunting their infamous "world's largest drum," Davis worked with a local manufacturer so that the Hawkeye Marching Band could parade onto the field with the "world's largest triangle," a 4-foot steel behemoth. The triangle is still part of Iowa Percussion's collection, kept in an undisclosed secure location.
Davis was born in Casper, Wyoming. He received bachelor's and master's degrees in percussion performance from Northwestern University. Students from his 38-year tenure at the University of Iowa include performers, educators, school of music deans and directors, and professionals in a variety of other fields. Notable among his many outstanding students are percussionist Steven Schick and jazz musician David Sanborn.
Professor Davis retired from teaching at the University of Iowa in 1996. To honor him, alumni, former students, and friends established an endowment through the UI Foundation that funds the Thomas L. Davis Percussion Award.
Tom's wife Pat also contributed the following:
The Jazz program at the U of I was started by Tom in the face of faculty and administration opposition.
To quote a former student of Tom's (Jerry Kracht): "In those days (the 60's) jazz was not yet recognized in the U of I School of Music, despite the fact that many students were gifted in it and hungry for it. Tom's early efforts at organizing and directing a jazz band (underground though it was) clearly helped in the eventual establishment of a fine jazz program in the School."