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Richard Davis, bassist who left his mark across genres, is dead at 93

Glenn Trudel
Madison Press Connection

When bassist Richard Davis was growing up on Chicago’s South Side, his high school music teacher, the legendary mentor Captain Walter Dyett, insisted that he learn both jazz and classical styles. Davis didn’t stop there. Over the next 70 years, he performed on jazz classics, in symphony orchestras, and with rock and pop greats.

He died in Madison, Wis. on Sept. 6, at 93. His daughter, Persia Davis, announced his death, noting that he had spent the last two years in hospice care.

Davis’ work was pivotal to such canonical jazz recordings as Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure, Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Rip Rig and Panic, and Sarah Vaughan’s Swingin’ Easy. He played on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, as well as key recordings by Janis Ian, Rickie Lee Jones, Bonnie Raitt, Carly Simon, Paul Simon, Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra. And he performed in orchestras led by Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky (who is said to have called Davis his favorite bassist). As pianist Ethan Iverson noted in a recent tribute, “the room became much larger when Richard Davis unpacked his instrument.”

Michael G. Stewart

Davis, a 2014 NEA Jazz Master, performed on more than 600 albums and led more than a dozen of his own, including the aptly named Heavy Sounds, a joint effort with drummer Elvin Jones — but it was quality, rather than quantity, that defined his gift.

Pianist Jason Moran, who worked with Davis on several occasions, notes “the way he found the space in the bass line. Instead of ‘walking’ a bass line, Davis seems to ‘chart’ it. Like an astronomer charting the sky,” he says, in an email. “In that way, he found freedom in the bass by pivoting between the earth and the stars.”

Born in Chicago on April 15, 1930, Davis had his first musical endeavor singing bass in his family’s vocal trio. After high school, he studied bass with Rudolf Fahsbender of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and began performing with Ahmad Jamal’s trio.

He moved to New York in 1954 to play in a band led by pianist Don Shirley, the subject of the recent movie Green Book; a few years later he began playing with Vaughan. The bands of great singers are often described as educational institutions, and Davis would frequently say that he earned his doctorate from the University of Sarah Vaughan. Hear how he supports and frames Sassy on “Shulie A Bop,” from Swingin’ Easy.

Through a shared passion for 20th-century classical music, Davis befriended Dolphy, an alto saxophonist who also played flute and bass clarinet, and whose remarkable range and conception matched Davis’ own. In addition to Out to Lunch, Davis can be heard on live Dolphy recordings made at the Five Spot, and on various sessions released after the multireedist’s untimely death in 1964. A recent boxed set, Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions, includes their recording of “Iron Man” (a song that Dolphy dedicated to Davis) as well as their amazing work as a duo, on material including Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday.”

Davis spent much of the ‘60s as a first-call bassist in New York, performing and recording with an array of greats. But his work with pianists Andrew Hill and Jaki Byard were a particular showcase for his virtuosity. His genius shines through in this alternate take of “Flight 19,” from Hill’s mid-‘60s classic Point of Departure.

His part in Van Morrison’s 1968 album Astral Weeks was the work of producer Lewis Merenstein, who often hired jazz musicians. Merenstein later told journalist Hank Shteamer that Davis was “the soul of the record,” a point made clear on the title track.

Davis was also a founding member of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, and his playing in the band, from 1966-72, influenced bassists and composers alike. The large-ensemble composer-bandleader Darcy James Argue says of “Three and One,” which Jones arranged to feature the bassist: “Davis plays the nimble melody along with the horns, before dropping into steady, buoyant walking lines to drive the sax soli and horn solos. Then, Davis solos with gestural abstraction, like a Jackson Pollock action painting come alive.”

In 1977, Davis left New York to take a position at the University of Wisconsin, where he spearheaded the creation of institutions to address racially sensitive issues. He launched The Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists, to ensure that a steady stream of talented musicians could follow in his footsteps. And as president of the Madison, WI Institutes for the Healing of Racism, Davis took a leadership role in giving voice to the community’s comparably small minority population.

“One of the big problems here is racism — racial profiling, racism, from other students towards black students and teachers and administrators alike,” Davis told Shteamer in a 2010 interview. “And I couldn't live with myself if I would not intervene and do something, and that’s what I’ve got. I had a daughter of 28, and I was setting a role model for her to do something.”

Martin Johnson