In a column mainly dedicated to rescuing significant Black Americans from obscurity, a profile of musician Richard Davis may seem a contradiction, particularly when you consider his prominence among the jazz cognoscenti. He also made his mark in the classical realm and in the world of rock and roll, if what critic Greil Marcus wrote of his being “the greatest bass ever heard on a rock album” has validity.
Many listeners were first stunned by his proficiency on a recording date with the multi-reedist Eric Dolphy on his Blue Note album “Out to Lunch” in 1964, or his dates with the diva Sarah Vaughan.
Davis’s genius was undeniably true, no matter the session or concert, and there is no disagreement from Vladimir Simosko and Barry Tepperman, who contend that his duet with Dolphy on “Alone Together” is a masterpiece: “its structure has a unity and logic of classic proportions, and the interplay between the two men is breathtakingly intricate.”
Whether in his chosen province of jazz or an occasional venture into rock, Davis was a phenomenal bassist.
He was born on April 15, 1930, in Chicago, and began his musical journey accompanied by his brothers, singing bass in the family trio. In high school, he studied the double bass and developed his musical vocabulary from the esteemed Walter Dyett, who taught many notable musicians. His ability was widely recognized and he was soon a member of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. He was the lead bassist when the group had its first performance at the city’s Orchestra Hall in 1947.
After high school, Davis continued his study of the bass privately with Rudolph Fassbender of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra while attending the Vandercook College of Music.
Then came a stint with various dance bands and ensembles, a phase that introduced him to pianist Don Shirley. In 1945, they moved to New York City and for the next two years, they were a popular duo before Davis joined the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. The next three years found him in the rhythm section behind Vaughan, touring and recording with her until 1960.
As Davis’s discography clearly illustrates, he was a first-call bassist in the early ’60s, working with such notable musicians as pianist Jaki Byard, saxophonist Booker Ervin, pianist Andrew Hill, drummer Elvin Jones, and vibraharpist Cal Tjader. This was a period when he recorded those memorable dates with Dolphy.
Along with frequent dates in the studio with other band leaders, Davis was a member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra from 1966 to 1972, where he was heard to great advantage. A list of the number of other leaders and recording dates reads like a veritable Hall of Fame roster.
In the ’70s, he recorded with several rock luminaries, including Laura Nyro and Van Morrison, where he was co-bandleader. He can be heard on Bruce Springsteen’s album “Born to Run.” His classical ventures were varied with performances with conductors Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulet, Leopold Stokowski, and Gunther Schuller.
For nearly a quarter of a century, Davis resided in New York City. In 1977, he moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where he became a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There he taught bass, jazz history, and improvisation. Among his former students are William Parker and a number of classically oriented musicians.
Davis left a considerable trove of recordings, including “Divine Gemini” (1978) and “Tenderness” (1985) with vibraphonist Walt Dickerson; and “Persia My Dear” (1987) and “Body and Soul” (1991) with Archie Shepp. A review by Thom Jurek notes that “This duet date from 1990 demonstrates the deep blues feeling and technical mastery Archie Shepp has on the tenor saxophone. Comprised of four standards—‘Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,’ ‘Body and Soul,’ ‘Pannonica,’ and ‘Round Midnight’—this set is one of Shepp’s most enjoyable ever. The reasons are myriad, but it is in large part due to the fluid, loping bass of Richard Davis…Davis’ sense of time and melody is nearly incredible on the title track and on ‘Round Midnight.’”
Davis’s website says that in 1993, he founded the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists, Inc., which annually brings in 17 masterful bass instructors/performers to teach young bassists ages 3–18. In 1998, he created the Retention Action Project (R.A.P.), focused on open dialogues about subjects that provide education about multicultural differences. R.A.P. collaborated with Vice Chancellor Paul W. Barrows (student affairs) and Seema Kapani, diversity education coordinator/trainer at the Equity and Diversity Resource Center.
Davis died on September 6, 2023, after two years in hospice care. He was 93.