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Saturday, August 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 75.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Richard Davis: The face of the bass
Isthmus Jazz Festival headliner breaks boundaries with both his music and his social activism
'I will retire with no regrets when I see diversity happening throughout the UW.'

There are a handful of moments on saxophonist Eric Dolphy's seminal free jazz album Out to Lunch where the bassist lays down a series of upward-inflected glissandi, as if a question is being asked. He then answers with a descending line. Eventually the rest of the band come back in, providing the ultimate response to the query issued by the bass. The effect is downright Socratic; it's almost as if the bassist is a music philosopher employing the classic Q&A format to encourage his pupil, the listener, to examine a particular musical problem from a particular angle.

That landmark album came out in 1964, exactly half a century ago. During the subsequent 50 years, Richard Davis, the bassist who quizzed listeners with those question-shaped licks, has built a remarkable career both as a performer and an educator. Since 1977, Davis has served as professor of bass at UW-Madison, instructing students in both jazz and classical technique for that tallest member of the stringed instrument family. He has also performed all over the world and appeared on at least 3,000 recordings, including 12 albums of his own as leader. Davis will join forces with renowned Chicago pianist Willie Pickens to headline the Isthmus Jazz Festival at Wisconsin Union Theater's new Shannon Hall on Saturday, June 21.

"We'll probably play mostly standards," Davis says of his upcoming appearance. "And maybe some of my compositions. And maybe some of his."

It takes only a few minutes of conversation with Davis to figure out that this is a man who likes to wing it. That's true whether he's recording an album, teaching a group of aspiring bassists or mapping out a concert set list. Maximum freedom expressed from within a framework of mastery.

Thirty-seven years ago, at the peak of his performing career, after being named best jazz bassist in Downbeat's annual critics' poll eight consecutive times, Davis left New York and came to Madison to teach college kids about the upright bass, about music and about life. He's been here ever since. Now 84, he shows few signs of slowing down. In addition to teaching and performing, Davis organizes an annual conference for young bassists and has been a leading voice for improving diversity and racial harmony at the UW and in the broader Madison community.

Davis gets asked about his work with Dolphy pretty often, simply because Out to Lunch is such an era-defining album, but the reality is that Dolphy is just one of a gazillion musical giants with whom Davis has shared a stage or studio. The list of luminaries he has jammed with is stacked with some of the biggest names ever to tickle an ivory, stir a snare or even wave a baton.

Best known as a jazzman, Davis is equally adept at European classical music. While he cut his professional teeth backing Sarah Vaughan and learned to break the rules alongside Sun Ra, he has always been just as comfortable holding down the bottom end of works by the likes of Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein. He's recorded with Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon. To anybody remotely knowledgeable about jazz, Davis is a giant in his own right.

Music is music, genres be damned

Davis believes the distinction between jazz and classical music is mainly a matter of semantics. The only important difference is that one batch of music is pre-composed and the other you have to compose on the fly.

"Duke Ellington always said there's no difference between jazz and classical," Davis notes. "He didn't classify any genres. To him, there were only two kinds of music: It's either good or bad. I'm with Duke Ellington on that."

Davis learned to blur the lines between genres from an early age. Walter Dyett, his music teacher at DuSable High School in Chicago, insisted that his students immerse themselves in both classical music and jazz. Dyett walked the talk; he himself doubled on jazz banjo and classical violin. His role-modeling paid off nicely in Davis' case. Under Dyett's guidance, Davis quickly acquired pro-level skills at both bowing the lines of long-dead white guys and plucking the emerging improvisational music of black America. Davis was hardly Dyett's only successful protégé; DuSable produced a long line of big-name jazzers, including Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington and Johnny Griffin.

Dyett was just the first in a series of remarkable teaching musicians whose insights Davis had the opportunity to absorb and tweak for his own purposes over the decades that followed -- insights he now passes on to his UW students. He continued his musical education at the VanderCook College of Music in Chicago and soon established himself as an in-demand sideman, finding steady work with the likes of the brilliant composer and pianist Ahmad Jamal.

Davis left Chicago for the Big Apple in 1954 and, a couple years later, hooked up with the great vocalist Sarah Vaughan, with whom he toured and recorded for the next several years. From Vaughan, Davis learned the subtleties of being a professional, and of being a conscientious listener and accompanist. These are things that separate the excellent sidemen from the merely competent ones. Working with a star of Vaughan's caliber also gave Davis the credibility and reputation he needed to become one of the most sought-after bassists in the scene. From there his career blossomed.

"You could say I went to the University of Sarah Vaughan," Davis says, laughing. "She was so musically skilled. And playing with her brought me to play with her accompanist Jimmy Jones, whose knowledge of chords was phenomenal. Sarah was so musical she could improvise beautifully along with the changes he would play. And the great percussionist Roy Haynes was in that band too, and he had such an amazing concept of rhythm.... Once you've proven yourself with musicians at that level, other vocalists start to call you, because they figure you must know something."

Shedding musical shackles

In the late '50s, a musical movement called Third Stream, which combined elements of jazz and European classical music, began to take hold, and given his crossover background, Davis was naturally drawn to it. He began performing frequently with composer and French horn player Gunther Schuller, who coined the term Third Stream in 1957.

The turbulent '60s were all about breaking down barriers and discarding restrictions, and free jazz was the musical expression of that social transformation. Jazz has always been grounded in improvisation, but up until then, that improvisation came within a prescribed framework of chord changes and rhythmic underpinning. With free jazz, much of that structure was thrown out the window.

"When it comes to freer music like we were playing in the '60s, the chords didn't matter that much," Davis explains. "It was what you're hearing around you and what you're hearing in your own head that shaped the circle of musical events."

According to Davis, what was happening in music was bound up in a broader movement toward liberation of all types.

"Limiting yourself to a particular set of notes and chords is in a sense being a slave to the powers that be," Davis says. "We were resisting being imprisoned by chord changes, trying to free ourselves from the restrictions of scales and rhythms. Some people call this free music. Some of us called it our music. Unrestricted, indefinable and free."

But even as he was shedding musical shackles with experimentalists like Dolphy, or sticking a little closer to the charts with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Davis maintained his connection with the classical world. He did time with the New York Philharmonic, and followed the batons of such master conductors as Georg Szell and Leopold Stokowski.

From the Big Apple to academia

In the mid-1970s, Davis started getting calls from some college in southern Wisconsin that he didn't know much about. They wanted him to leave New York and come to the Midwest to be a professor. He declined. After all, he was at the top of his game as a musician, in constant demand in the hottest musical hotbed in the land. But the music department at the UW was persistent. It kept calling and eventually wore down its mark. In 1977, Davis finally agreed to accept the position. He has been at the university since then.

Davis insists that he learns as much from his students as they learn from him, and he's passionate about the interactive relationship between student and teacher. But his methods are not necessarily orthodox, mostly because the people he learned from were not particularly orthodox. And sometimes he just doesn't like doing things by the book.

"One of my best teachers was Sun Ra," Davis says. "He taught me a lot about life. And when you learn about life, you transplant that into your music. Consequently, he was teaching me about music on a global level. That's what I try to do."

Davis says he's given lessons in which he and the student don't even get around to mentioning the music, let alone playing a note of it. They just talk about life. He then tells of a lesson where the student was having a difficult time with a particular musical passage.

"I said, 'Well, let's meditate for about five minutes.' I didn't tell her what to meditate on. When she played that passage five minutes later, it was flawless. I didn't know that was going to happen, but it seemed like it might be what she needed at the time. That's the way I teach. I improvise."

Davis' work with budding musicians is not limited to college students. In 1993 he founded the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists, which hosts a conference each spring that draws bass players between the ages of 3 and 18 from around the country. The conference provides these young musicians with an opportunity to network with peers and learn new skills through workshops led by some of the world's top professional bassists. In keeping with Davis' genre-busting inclinations, the conference gives students the chance to explore, study and perform different kinds of music for the bass, from jazz to the instrument's underappreciated solo classical repertoire.


In addition to teaching, Davis' other passion at the UW is racial equity. He has long been a leading voice for increasing diversity on campus. In 1998 he created the Retention Action Project, an initiative aimed at improving the climate for students of color by fostering greater multicultural understanding among the diverse populations at the university. He feels that the lack of diversity at the university is part of a cycle that perpetuates racial disparities in our communities -- including disparities in Dane County that are among the nation's worst.

"The community has failed, the school systems have failed, and the university has failed," Davis says. "When you look at the school system, the racial makeup of the student body is changing, but the percentage of teachers of color is still very low. Who can better handle this cultural transition than a person who comes from that culture? When students don't see someone who looks like them teaching, that tells them something must be wrong with [them]. That's the message that's given."

Davis takes his message beyond the university via his nonprofit Madison Wisconsin Institute for the Healing of Racism. Through 10-week courses, the institute aims to heal the injuries sustained by centuries of racial oppression. It tries to tackle not just overt racism, but the more insidious kind that seeps into our social fabric through years of conditioning that people are often completely unaware of. There's been a lot of conversation about racial justice in Madison of late, and while that's an encouraging first step toward improving our abysmal record of unequal treatment, Davis knows there is much work to be done.

"From the moment they set foot in school, black kids feel they are not valued the same as white kids. What sets that precedent at such an early age? There must be something wrong with the media. We need to create environments where children of color receive a very different message, that they are important and their culture is valid," he notes.

So how do you go about healing this toxic mess? According to Davis, the key is compassion, the idea of the oneness of all humankind.

"We have to listen to each other deeply and see where we have failed," he says. "The transformation has to begin on the individual level and on the neighborhood level. That's when things can really change."

Full circle

Dolphy died not long after Out to Lunch was released, precluding the possibility of a more extended Dolphy-Davis collaboration. Davis plans to travel to New Jersey later this month to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dolphy's passing by gathering with other members of the saxophonist's musical circle and playing his compositions. Many of the musicians who were pushing the limits a half-century ago are now revered as distinguished elders, as evidenced by Davis' acceptance earlier this year of a prestigious Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

But many of the barriers to success young African Americans faced 50 years ago remain in place today. And the UW remains a not-very-diverse institution. That's what keeps Davis plugging away at age 84.

"I will retire with no regrets when I see diversity happening not only in the music school but throughout the university. I have to work on those things with all my heart and soul," he says. "Plus I love my students. I like to see the development of a student from knowing nothing into knowing something. That charges me up."

And when Richard Davis gets charged up, interesting things happen, whether on the stage or in the classroom.

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