Virtuoso doubler tells FBPO about his Chicago roots, stints with Out of the Blue and the Tonight Show band and lessons learned from Ron Carter
Chicago native Kenny Davis grew up listening to the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire, the Brothers Johnson, the Temptations and other R&B artists. Upon entering Northeastern Illinois University, Kenny was bitten by the jazz bug and quickly became part of the Chicago jazz scene, playing with Von Freeman, Ari Brown and Fred Anderson. Davis also studied classical bass with Warren Benfield of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and took a number of lessons with Jeffrey Bradetich, as well.
In 1986, Davis moved to New York, where he became a force in the city’s music scene, doing sessions and jingles. While in New York, Kenny also joined Out of the Blue (OTB) and began appearing with artists such as Freddie Hubbard, Cassandra Wilson, Abbey Lincoln, Diane Reeves and Art Farmer, while studying with jazz bass legend Ron Carter. Davis has also performed with jazz giant Herbie Hancock and was the bassist in Kevin Eubanks’ Tonight Show band from 1999 to 2002.
Kenny Davis holds a bachelor of arts degree in music education from Northeastern Illinois University and a master of music degree from Rutgers University. He also served as a faculty member at the University of Connecticut (UCONN). Kenny’s first CD as a leader, Kenny Davis, was released in 2009 on Daken Records.
FBPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing?
KD: My musical upbringing involved hearing all types of music. Everything from gospel music to the R&B music of Sam Cook and Motown.
FBPO: How did you become a bass player?
KD: I became a bass player because the garage bands in the neighborhoods usually needed bass players, due to the fact that there were already so many guitar players!
FBPO: Who were your influences as a young student of bass?
KD: My influences were mainly Verdine White and Louis Johnson. My high school band director, Rick Dittemore, turned me on to my first jazz double bassist, Ron Carter. I didn’t understand jazz music, but I started to enjoy the challenges of the music.
FBPO: A lot of legendary musicians came out of Chicago. How would you say growing up in that environment influenced you musically?
KD: Well, all those legendary Chicago musicians set a standard, which was a good starting point for me.
FBPO: You’re accomplished on both electric and upright bass, you play jazz and classical and you were heavily influenced by funk and R&B. What were your musical aspirations when you embarked upon your musical career? Did you know what you were looking for or did you just take it as it came?
KD: I was taught never to go down a one-way street and that it’s important to have choices in life. That’s why I went to college and got my degrees. Now, playing both the acoustic and electric bass gave me those choices because I was able to play in the funk, fusion and jazz circuits in Chicago. Early in my career, I just took my musical aspirations as they came, but after learning how to play, I wanted to be able to play in many different musical environments.
FBPO: How did you manage to break in to the music scene in New York? I mean, that’s no small feat!
KD: I broke into New York’s music scene by getting a call from my longtime friend and great bassist, Lonnie Plaxico, who was playing with Art Blakey at the time. Lonnie told me about a band in dire need of a bassist. This band was OTB (Out of the Blue) and I knew one of the members in the band, Michael Mossman. Michael told the other band members that I can play and they checked me out by hiring me to play some concerts with them. We were the young lions at the time, with a major recording contract on Blue Note Records, which promoted the band. Word of mouth spread and I was soon playing with Freddie Hubbard, Johnny Griffin and Michal Urbaniak. Then word got around that I can play both the acoustic and electric bass well.
FBPO: What was it like studying with Ron Carter? What did you learn from him that you still apply today?
KD: Studying with Ron Carter was a dream come true. He taught me the importance of walking choice notes – I’m still trying to get that together! – having a good left hand and being on time. He taught me so much. Ron really instilled discipline in his students about being on time, being responsible, etc. As his student, I really felt I had to represent him well in those departments because I was subbing for him a lot in those days.
FBPO: Tell me about your time with the Tonight Show band. That must have been quite an experience!
KD: My time on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno was great! Now, with any job, there are always pros and cons. I enjoyed playing the different styles of music and I got a chance to be in one place for a while.
FBPO: You must have a good story about playing in that band. Something unusual or noteworthy?
KD: One time I was very sick and the band had to play behind an artist. I can’t remember who it was. On the break, I went back to my apartment to take a short nap. I got back about one and-a-half minutes late and they let me know about the schedule they had to keep. They were nice about telling me – they even joked about it – but I knew from that moment on I had to always be early for everything.
FBPO: What made you decide to endorse Fodera basses?
KD: Foderas are the best basses out there. Period. I pick my basses, starting from the tree trunk, and what they do for the end result is amazing! Another reason I endorse Fodera is because Joey, Vinnie and the staff are great people. They are patient and they care about their artists.
FBPO: Which Fodera model(s) are you currently playing?
KD: I usually play the Emperor Series basses, but on the road I play my NYC bass. I just did a tour of Japan with Carmen Lundy and I got a lot of compliments regarding the sound of my bass. The Fodera NYC bass sounds very clear and warm. And it looks great, too! Mine’s white, with gold machinery.
Another thing I like about Fodera basses is how well they handle every musical situation I play in. For example, when playing behind Bono, Macy Gray, Carmen Lundy, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Owens, Barry Manilow, Reba McEntire, Al Green or Lenny White, to name a few, I have to vary my sound for all the different musical styles. With Lenny, I use slightly more of the back pickup for most songs, except the more hip-hop type tunes, where both pickups are wide open. With Barry Manilow, I use slightly more of the front pickup and change the bass from the single coil to the double coil setting for the disco tunes. The bass tone is always clear and warm. That’s why bassists like Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, Anthony Jackson and Matt Garrison play Fodera. Now, I have a saying and it is: “Once you play Fodera you can’t play whatever!”
FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days?
KD: Teaching at Princeton and Rutgers Universities, playing with Dee Dee Bridgewater, Geri Allen, Carmen Lundy and Onaje Allan Gumbs, to name a few. I did a gig at the Apollo Theater recently, where I backed up Bono, Macy Gray, Quincy Jones, Zeux and Paquito D’Rivera. I took my band to Brazil to perform, too. Next I’m off to Europe with Dee Dee Bridgewater.
FBPO: You’ve already done so much in your career, yet you’re still pretty young. What else would you like to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?
KD: I’d like to write for orchestras. I’m learning how to do this now and it’s very challenging!
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
KD: Probably a full-time high school teacher.