One-on-one conversation yields profound insights and sage advice and from one of the world’s most highly respected bassists
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
April 11, 2011
Richard Davis is one of the most highly acclaimed bass players of our time. Born in Chicago, Davis spent twenty-three years in New York, where he established himself as one of the world’s premier bass players. Throughout the course of a career that has spanned over fifty years, Davis has performed and/or recorded with Sarah Vaughan, Eric Dolphy, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Miles Davis, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band, Dexter Gordon, Ahmad Jamal and many others.
Equally at home in both the jazz and classical worlds, Davis has also performed under the batons of George Szell, Leopold Stokowski, Igor Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, Gunther Schuller and Leonard Bernstein.
Among his many distinctions are honorary doctorate degrees from VanderCook and Edgewood Colleges, the International Peace Award and the Wisconsin Arts Governor’s award, as well as acknowledgements and distinctions from the NAACP, International Society of Bassists, ASCAP, Down Beat and countless others.
In 1993, he founded the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists, which conducts master classes for bassists ages 3-18. Since 1977, Davis has been on the faculty at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where serves as Professor of Bass (European classical and Jazz), Jazz History and combo improvisation.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing.
RD: Well, I’m from Chicago and I was brought up in a very popular high school. The neighborhood was very musical, too, because there were a lot of blues players in the back alleys. My upbringing was in Chicago, where theaters had bands coming in. That was before the theaters petered out because of TV. So I had exposure to a lot of live music.
In the high school I went to, there was a guy named Walter Dyett. He had a reputation for creating and developing very good musicians. You might say his most popular musician was Nat King Cole. He went to school there. You know the name Johnny Griffin?
FBPO: Sure! He played with Monk.
RD: And Gene Ammons, Dinah Washington… He developed all those people. And I went to that same high school.
FBPO: What was the name of the high school?
FBPO: How did you end up as a bass player?
RD: Well, I always liked the bass when I was a kid. My cousin, a girl who was eight years older than I was, influenced me to follow my interest and, at 15 years old, I decided to start studying the bass with Walter Dyett at the high school.
FBPO: You’re very well steeped in both classical and jazz. Do you have a preference for one style over the other?
RD: No, I don’t. I think music is either good or bad, no matter what the genre.
FBPO: How do you adapt to different musical environments? That is, how does one go from playing with Eric Dolphy to Frank Sinatra to Igor Stravinski to Barbra Streisand and consistently give the music what it needs?
RD: I never made it a point to feel like I had to. I was just creating what I wanted to hear coming from me, contributing to the music that I was around. Walter Dyett taught us that. He’d tell us, “You’ve been there before.” He just taught us that there was no such thing as sight reading. We went in with the confidence that we had been there before. We were just in a new environment.
Classical music is just part of the general music. I didn’t switch gears. That was the fantastic part about his teaching and that’s how I teach today. Ninety-five percent of my teaching comes from my experience with learning from such a master, and he was.
FBPO: You spent a lot of time in New York. What advice do you have for young aspiring bass players with dreams of going to New York – or, for that matter, to L.A. or Nashville – and breaking into the music scene?
RD: Follow their dream. Wherever they want to go is where they should be. If they have reasons not to go to a certain place because of fear of not making it, or the fear of high competition, I encourage them to get past that. Some of them are afraid to go away from their own neighborhood because now they know they’ll be competing with a whole lot of people just like them from all over the country. And if you don’t experience that competition, you’re living in fear for life.
When I was 24, I went to New York with Don Shirley. Johnny Pate, who had been playing with Don, recommended me because he did not want to go to New York. So I took Pate’s place with Don and Pate took my place with Ahmad Jamal. New York frightened me to a degree, so I asked Pate if I could have my job back with Ahmad. Luckily for me, he said I could not have my job back and that I belonged in New York. So I was made to go to New York. I tell that story of fear out of personal experience and I encourage students who have that fear to go ahead and jump in the water.
FBPO: You’ve been at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for quite a while. What can a diligent student hope to achieve by attending the music program at that school?
RD: Well, I’ll tell you what I do. A lot of people, like you, perhaps, think I run a jazz program. My contract and obligation to the school is to teach bass students how to perform European classical music. I teach them how to play concertos, sonatas, orchestral repertoire and all those things that have to do with classical music. That is the only thing I am required to teach. And as far as that goes, the program is very excellent. I have developed about seven professors.
I also have several performing students in jazz and classical… you name it. I only teach those bass players jazz if they’re interested, and then I split the lesson into two parts. But most of them are not interested in jazz. I got the job there because they knew I could do both. I teach a jazz history course and I teach students how to perform in jazz combos.
FBPO: I’m glad you cleared that up because that was not my impression!
RD: At one point, they did have a jazz degree program and, because I’m known basically as a jazz player, people will assume that I’m running it. But there’s no program there to speak of. It’s still on the books, but it’s not developed.
FBPO: Is Peter Dominguez one of those students you referred to?
RD: He was my first student when I came here in 1977. He is now a bass professor himself and he’s like a son to me. He is the main part of my Richard Davis Foundation for young bass players. He is the main part that makes that happen.
FBPO: Tell me about the Richard Davis Foundation. What is its mission?
RD: Eighteen clinicians, that is professors of the bass, get together every Easter weekend, Friday and Saturday, to teach bass players of all levels and all interests. We have about eighty-five young bass players who attend every year. I started that thing by myself with the encouragement of Peter Dominguez. He told me I should start something like that. This Easter will mark our eighteenth year. The teachers give a recital on Friday night and the students give theirs on Saturday night. It’s one of the most spectacular things that’s happened to young bass players.
FBPO: You’ve done so much good outside of the music world. What are some of the causes that are the most meaningful to you?
RD: The thing that I spend a lot of time with is racial conditioning. I have good course facilitators, I have good materials, good books, good videos and lots of people participating. And now I’m being asked to travel to do some series. We study together, have a lecture and then we give what’s called a testimony, where people open their hearts once their heads are open. And that has proven to be very, very successful. It’s amazing what people do not know when it comes to racial issues. We do it with compassion and make everyone comfortable and feeling that their ideas are protected, never edited, never interrupted. I’ve been doing that since 1989.
FBPO: You are to be truly commended for all you have accomplished in your life and your career. What else would you like to achieve that you haven’t done yet?
RD: I’ll have to live till I’m 137 years to get done what I want to do! By that time, I will have gained some wisdom and I will become what they call a “wise man.” I’m about to turn 81, you know, and I feel like I’m just beginning to live!
FBPO: What’s on that list of things you want to accomplish if you live to 137?
RD: The thing I want to accomplish is to be read, to have the answers to a lot of things. A lot of people come to me for answers. My students will come to me about their family situations, about racial situations within the family. I teach a class at the university called, “The oneness of humankind.” A lot of students come to me with questions and feel like I have an answer. So I am constantly studying from books, from videos and just living the life. I feel like I have a responsibility.
It’s funny because, as a kid, I was not athletic, so I had to have something else I could develop, and that was reading. I read so much, you wouldn’t believe it! The teacher would give me an assignment in high school and, not only did I use the textbook, I went to the library and got three or four other books on the same topic. So I had a rounded answer for her. I had great teachers in high school, both black and white. I guess they recognized I was after something because my mother had trained me to be the best student, to have the highest grades. I couldn’t afford anything lower than 100 because I was black and I had two strikes against me already. With that kind of discipline and with the discipline of Walter Dyett, I had nowhere to go but to the top. I use that same discipline in everything that I do.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
RD: I would be a professional horseman.