Richard Davis

Bassist, Educator
portrait of Richard Davis.

Photo by Michael G. Stewart


"I am pleased to be chosen to receive the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship Award. It is exciting to join past and current recipients alike. It is also comforting to be recognized by NEA officials and those who nominated me."

One of the premier jazz bassists in history, Richard Davis is widely recorded, not only in jazz settings but also in the pop, rock and classical genres as well. In addition to his prowess on bass, Davis is a noted educator, having been a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1977.

Part of the Chicago generation of musicians that included Johnny Griffin and Clifford Jordan, Davis studied bass in high school under the direction of Walter Dyett. He then attended Chicago's VanderCook College of Music while playing with both classical orchestras and jazz combos at night, including gigs with Ahmad Jamal and Sun Ra.

In 1954, he moved to New York City commencing a now six-decades-long performing and recording career. Davis toured with Sarah Vaughan from 1957-60, including a tour of Europe, and worked as a sideman on numerous recordings in the 1960s, but was in special demand by Jaki Byard, Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin, Andrew Hill, Elvin Jones, and Roland Kirk, with whom he cut several albums each. He was a member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra from 1966-72.

Proficient in any style, Davis was in demand in pop and rock circles as well, playing on albums by Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and Van Morrison (on whose album Astral Weeks legendary rock critic Lester Bangs called Davis' bass playing "something that has been touched, that's in the realm of the miraculous."). Davis was equally at home in the classical world, performing for some of the music's finest conductors: Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Gunther Schuller, Leopold Stokowski, Igor Stravinsky, and George Szell. He is still in demand as a performer, often touring internationally.

A longtime educator, Davis' students have included David Ephross, William Parker, and Hans Sturm, among others. In 1993, he created the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists, which annually assembles a team of master instructors/performers to work with emerging talent to expand "the horizon of the student in terms of how they perceive their own potential and that of the bass itself." In 1998, Davis created the Retention Action Project (R.A.P.) on the UW-Madison Campus to discuss multicultural differences by bringing together university representatives and social change activists. Additionally, he founded the Madison Wisconsin Institutes for the Healing of Racism in 2000 to raise consciousness about and address the history and pathology of racism.

Davis has received many honors and awards, including DownBeat magazine's Critics Poll, which named Davis "Best Bassist" from 1967-74. He also has received two honorary doctorate degrees; a Hilldale Award for distinguished teaching, research, and service from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; the Wisconsin Governor's Arts Award (2001); the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award, bestowed by the City of Madison, Wisconsin (2003); and the Spencer Tracy Award for Distinction in the Performing Arts, presented by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Selected Discography:

Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch, Blue Note, 1964
Richard Davis/Elvin Jones: Heavy Sounds, Impulse!, 1967
The Philosophy of the Spiritual, Cobblestone, 1971
Bassist: Homage to Diversity, Palmetto Records, 2001
Blue Monk, King Japan, 2008


RICHARD DAVIS: See, the bass is a late-developing instrument. It didn't the solo parts until maybe 40 years ago. It was always accompanying. And I started playing melodies. I played melodies that people recognize.


JO REED: That's bassist and 2014 NEA Jazz Master Richard Davis playing "Summertime" with 2003 Jazz Master Elvin Jones.

This is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.

Out to Lunch, Point of Departure, Heavy Sounds, The Barbra Streisand Album, Astral Weeks, and Born to Run. What do these iconic albums have in common? Well, they all feature Richard Davis on bass.

2014 NEA Jazz Master Richard Davis is a much sought-after bassist who has made some 3,000 recordings--and not just as a jazz musician but across the genres of classical, pop, and rock.

A professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison since 1977, Davis himself attended Chicago's VanderCook College of Music while playing at night with both classical orchestras and jazz combos.

He moved to New York City in the mid-nineteen fifties where he began a six-decades long career--and still counting---as a soloist, a leader, an orchestra member and a sideman. In this, the first of a two-part interview, we explore Richard Davis's extraordinary career in jazz. Davis was born in 1930 in a Chicago that was still a pull for African-American musicians from New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. Blues and jazz were everywhere and a young boy interested in music could hear it by just walking down the street.

RICHARD DAVIS: Well, I used to go around the corner to a bar called 708 Club, 47th Street, not going into the bar, but standing outside of the bar listening to blues (UNINTEL) like Memphis Minnie, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters, all those great artists.

And it was-- quite a treat to just walk on this-- 47th Street is like a main thoroughfare and you walk on 47th Street (INAUDIBLE) 708 Club. Never forget the address. And all these great artists and they're singing.

JO REED: And did you know then that you wanted music to be your life? Or how did you-- how did you discover a musical life for yourself?

RICHARD DAVIS: See, in those days you would go to the neighborhood theater and see live musicians perform on stage. And this theater was only four blocks from my house. And you can sit in there all day long, movie two hours-- stage show and movie, stage show from about 11:00 in the morning to 11:00 at night.

And I was always impressed with just watching these guys and the bass player- the lights from the stage or backstage or somewhere would reflect on that nicely-polished wooden bass and give off a reflection of light and then those days the bass player when he end his solo used to turn the bass around like this- slap it and turn around. And I said, "Man that’s- what is that? That’s good!" Y’know? And the thing I liked about that is that the bass was always in the background and I was a shy kid, so I thought maybe I’d like to be in the background.

JO REED: Okay. So, you liked the bass. When you did you start playing the bass?

RICHARD DAVIS: When I was 15. See, my cousin, June, beautiful person, she’d always say something about playing the bass.
And she kept talking about the bass and I kept listening to the bass.

And she said, "Why don't you play it?" I said, "Why don't you play it?" And she said something that hurts me today, "Women are not supposed to play the bass." She would have been a great bass player, 'cause she was a great artist. June, I just loved June.

JO REED: You went to DuSable High School?


JO REED: DuSable.

RICHARD DAVIS: --High School.

JO REED: Okay. You went to--

RICHARD DAVIS: Depends on where you from though. DuSable/DuSable.

JO REED: And you had a teacher there who had a profound influence on you. Tell me about him.

RICHARD DAVIS: Walter Dyett, how much time do you have? 'Cause it-- (LAUGHTER)

JO REED: As much time as you want to give me.

RICHARD DAVIS: Really? I could take that for ever. Walter Dyett was a monumental figure in Chicago and Illinois and in the country and in the world. He was such a hard disciplinarian that everybody who had something to do with him learned well on what to do and how to do it.

I was a very shy kid in high school, but I got the nerve to go up to his office to say, "I want to study the bass." He just looked at me with that slow way of talking and he say, "You know, we're having a summer school program for the first time this year. You want to start then?" I said, "Yeah." So, that was with Walter Dyett in the summer program playing the bass. And when it became the fall semester he said, "You know too much to be in the beginner's band, you don't know enough to be in the concert band. So, what I'm gonna do is put you in a what-do-you-call- a study hall," I had the whole band room to myself to practice.

"And in the second period you'd be observing the concert band." So, that was as a misfit, but not enough and too much and he said, "Now, if you figure that you can play those parts you're looking at, play 'em. Play when you think you can play." I'll never forget the piece, Bolero (UNINTEL) by Ravel. Du, du, du, du, du, du, du, du, du, du, du, du, du, du, du, for ever, that rhythm was going on. I could not find that one note and it was almost like the first note I learned, but I was nervous.

I'd never played with an ensemble before and it had all these repeat marks, dal segno-s, da capo-s, lapo-s, mapo-s and all of those terms. I didn't know what they meant. But I was interested and I went to-- Walter Dyett and I said, "Look, I see something on the board that I don't recognize." And I said, "What is that?" He said, "That's treble clef." I was only used to bass clef, like a half moon. And I said, "Am I supposed to know what those notes sounds like? Am I supposed to be able to discern where they fit?" He saying, "Yes."

He said, "You talking about harmony." Harmony, what's that? (LAUGH) Asked him so many questions. He said-- he said, "Come by my house next Saturday. I don't have time for that in the classroom." Well, I went to his house every Saturday for three years.

JO REED: He also encouraged you to play the bass as a jazz player as well as a classical player.

RICHARD DAVIS: Most certainly did. He encouraged me to play the bass with any kind of music in mind; learn it all. So, I was studying all this classical stuff (SOUND EFFECTS) and then I was playing all this jazz stuff. And sure enough in 1977 the university called me to teach here because I could do both. And-- good players will say, "Don't specialize and focus on one music. Do it all." Duke Ellington says only two types: good and bad. (LAUGH)

JO REED: Good and the other kind.

RICHARD DAVIS: That what he said? (LAUGHTER) Thank you, Jo.

JO REED: That's okay. This might seem like a weird question, but the bass is such a big instrument and there's a way you're almost hugging it when you're playing. What does it feel like physically when you're playing that?

RICHARD DAVIS: Well, (LAUGH) are we on tape? (LAUGHTER) It feels good. It feels good, because you have a-- something that is shaped like a woman and you have something that sounds like a woman in certain registers and with the passion that you trying to get out of the instrument you are really making love to the instrument.

And the instrument responds by accepting the sound you're producing and in a sense it's making love to you.

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RICHARD DAVIS: So, I like to go along with the fact that I wanted to be good. I wanted to be in love with something. There was a movie done on the passion guitar. And about 60 guitar players answering the question you just asked me. And they all had love stories, all had love stories.

JO REED: How did you begin to play with Sun Ra?

RICHARD DAVIS: Oh, Sun Ra? (LAUGH) Well, Sun Ra was at least 15 years older than the guys I was hanging out with. And he had this wisdom about him that you could just see it, just pooling (?) out of his veins. And he would say things that we had never heard before.

And so, I started working with-- Sun Ra in burlesque houses. And Kaymid (PH) City outside of Chicago, that was burlesque town.

I was going to Roosevelt College. I'd work till about 4:00 in the morning and 8:00 in the morning I was in school. And he'd say things like-- "You see the guy over there who's drunk?" Some guy laying out on the bench or booth, I mean, really drunk. He said, "I'm gonna sober him up."

"How's he gonna do that?" Start playing, more out, more out and the guy stood up at attention almost. Sloopy. (Laughter) Within five minutes.

So, I started playing in his band. He was telling me-- if I didn't know a song, he said, "You should know that song. That song is 50 years old. You gotta know that song." And then I went to Paris with him. We had a great time with him there. I mean, Sun Ra was like a-- I can't say enough about him either.

JO REED: Still in Chicago, still quite young, when you started playing with Ahmad Jamal.

RICHARD DAVIS: Oh yeah, my first big-time gig. (LAUGH)

I worked with him for two years I think it was. And we worked in Chicago clubs. Ahmad taught me a lot too. We rehearsed in my house and he knew all the songs. He had a way of playing that was just unbelievable.

Matter of fact, Miles Davis used that in his performance the way Ahmad used to play. He was very mature and very, very talented. Two years with him was like a-- another library of music.

JO REED: And then you moved to New York, but you were nervous about leaving Chicago and moving to New York, which surprised me. What was the draw to New York and what was holding you back?

RICHARD DAVIS: I'm glad I had that experience, 'cause now I can tell my students, "Don't be nervous about going to the big time. It's there waiting for ya. Just be prepared." So, I exchanged jobs with a guy named Johnny Pate (PH). He was working with Don Shirley. I was working with Ahmad Jamal.

And he says, "Don wants a bass player to go to New York." I said, "Okay." So, he said, "You go over to his house and play for him." And so, Johnny Pate took the job with Ahmad Jamal and I took his job. Then I finally started thinking. I said, "New York, God. I don't want to go to New York. All those great musicians there and bass players."

So, I called Johnny and said, "I want my job back, I’m with Ahmad and you stay is Don Shirley." He said, "Richard," I'll never forget that, I kiss his feet today, because he said that. We still tight. So, I had to go. I didn't have a job except New York. And I went to New York.

JO REED: What year was this?

RICHARD DAVIS: 1954; I was 24 years of age.

JO REED: What was New York like then?


JO REED: Yeah, for you?

RICHARD DAVIS: Scary. It was scary, because you hear about-- and I was-- I was reading all of these jazz magazines about all of these guys. And there I am coming out of-- I originally thought-- I could see the vision of some bass player asking me, "Where you going with that bass?" if I'm carrying a bass (UNINTEL). "Where you going? Who are you?"

That's what I thought. Little did I know that these bass players just hugged me, made me feel confident, took me out to eat, taught me where to go, these places, that place. But I literally stayed in my hotel room for two days.

JO REED: Where did you live?

RICHARD DAVIS: 52nd and Broadway, right across (UNINTEL PHRASE). (LAUGH) And I would come out and eat at this restaurant. Every morning I would come out and eat this restaurant with eggs and bacon or something and go back up to my little hole. But I was practicing all of the time in my room. And people would knock on my door wondering who's this playing the bass.

JO REED: And you started working with Sarah Vaughan.


JO REED: What did you say you went to the University of Sarah Vaughan.

RICHARD DAVIS: That's what I mean. You knew-- at the University of Sarah Vaughan is the best way I can describe it. That that was a learning experience in music that I'd never conceived before. And she was so musical. She played the piano and with her was one of the world's finest piano players, Jimmie Jones who had harmonies that they haven't discerned what they were yet; modern harmonies. And Roy Haynes on the drums.

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RICHARD DAVIS: See, I’d read about these guys when I was living in Chicago. Here out on the same stage with Roy Haynes.

JO REED: Did it take you a little while to be able to jump in there and play or did you feel comfortable to do that from the beginning? How did that work?

RICHARD DAVIS: Wow. Those are good questions. I was just gonna say, I felt very nervous. I felt shy. I'm playing with all these greats, who've been around for years. I didn't realize that I was probably chosen, because Roy Haynes's used to see me play in Chicago when he'd come there. And he finally recommended me. And so-- I knew I wasn't giving my all, and, you know, and, I'm just, you know, tiptoeing through the tulips, one day I said, "I'm gonna play. That's why they hired me." And I starting bearing down, then, and I could see right away they started looking around (UNINTEL). That's what we heard him play, now he's doing it.

JO REED: And you were with her for five years?

RICHARD DAVIS: At least. We went all over the States, went all over Europe, and this and that, all these places. I went everywhere with her. And everywhere was a sensation.

JO REED: But you decided after about five years or so that it was time to leave. Was that a difficult decision to leave?

RICHARD DAVIS: Well, to leave Sarah Vaughan, you're leaving a gold mine and you have to go right back down in the pit to see if you start with another gold mine. (LAUGH) Never thought to say it like that before, but that's how I felt, that I was leaving a gold mine and where am I gonna go from here?

But I knew it was time for me to leave, 'cause I was hearing other things in my head and I wanted to find a place for those places to fit in-- those sounds. It's all about a sound. And I said, "What am I gonna do with this?" Well, I told them that I have to go to New York now and stay in New York to see what was happening.

JO REED: And what happened next?

RICHARD DAVIS: What happened next? Well, (LAUGH) going back on the subway, (LAUGHTER) guy walks up to me, I thought it was Arnett Coleman (PH). And he said, "Mr. Davis?" And I said, "Yeah." He said, "My name is Eric Dolphy." He said, "Are you working this weekend?" I said, "No." He said, "Now you are." And that was exactly where I-- heard those sounds fit in with what he was playing.

JO REED: Did you go to the Five Spot with him?

RICHARD DAVIS: And I said, "Man!" It was (UNINTEL PHRASE), Eddie Blackwell, Cedar Walton. And I said, "Man, this is it." And we were playing and playing and playing and the music was so free.

And I remember the day where Eric and I got married. I was playing and all of a sudden I heard him do things and I started doing something similar with what he was doing and matching it.

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And it was, like, a love affair. We became the best of friends. He was always encouraging.

JO REED: Now, you were determined that the bass would be-- considered a complete instrument. That you were gonna give that instrument a melodic line. Was that something that you were doing before you met Eric, or was he instrumental in helping you accomplish that?

RICHARD DAVIS: I'll go back and tell you how my interest in the bass being a melodic in-- interest (SIC). When I told my high school homeroom teacher that I was gonna leave the ROTC and join the band. And I'll never forget him walking around from all around the other side of the room and he said to me and said, "Boo, boo, boo, boo, boo, boo." And I looked at him, I said, "I'm gonna show you one day." From that day on I was playing melodies, melodies.

See, the bass is a late-developing instrument. It didn't the solo parts until maybe 40 years ago. It was always accompanying. And I started playing melodies. I played melodies that people recognize.

JO REED: Well, your playing is distinguished by many things, but among-- among the things that distinguish your playing is your bowing.

RICHARD DAVIS: Well, bowing the bass gives a chance for a melody to be heard in another way. A guy who encouraged me to use the bow more was Spike Lee's dad, Bill Lee teaches on (UNINTEL PHRASE). He said, "Richard, you have a golden arm. People should hear it more." And Eric Dolphy said the same thing. So, then I started playing these nice melodic lines, songs, whatever. I have one CD with-- I'm playing a bow for the whole CD, except for the accompaniment bass part. I loved the sound of the bow.

JO REED: I want to talk about one specific CD, or album I should say, that you and Eric made together, Out To Lunch--


JO REED: --which you did at Blue Note. Blue Note is a legendary label and Out to Lunch is considered one of its absolute best.

RICHARD DAVIS: People will always ask me about that album. I mean, young people, like 20-year-old students.

JO REED: Do you remember "Something Sweet, Something Tender"?

RICHARD DAVIS: I remember that too. Was that the one with--

JO REED: You did this beautiful duet with Eric on that.


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RICHARD DAVIS: I remember that. Yeah. Oh that's "Something Sweet, Something Tender" with Eric Dolphy was a chance for to meet-- use the bow as he had directed. He's-- he was in the thing, he's playing the bass clarinet on that. And I was playing a bowed bass. They have similar range in a sense of sound, you know. And I just thought that was just a-- a sweet thing to do. And he encouraged me to do the bow more.

JO REED: Can you talk a little bit about the difference between performing and recording?

RICHARD DAVIS: Performing and recording, is there any difference? Both of them have to do with-- the same thing, immediate improvisation. On a recording you get a chance to edit, go back and do another take. On performance that's it. You're performing on the minute, it's over the next minute and you don't do takes, 'cause you're in a club where you're expected to play different songs, you want to play different songs.

Audience influences you-- puts you in disarray and in-- recordings you set up an ideal situation where you can record comfortably. The fervor and feeling in the audience is not there, 'cause nobody's present. So, you don't get this-- to and fro response at what you're playing.

And you can make a lot of takes and out of maybe ten, 11 takes and you only have one that you want to use. And that thing come through (UNINTEL) you got one in the bank, a take you all like, then so let's play another just for the kicks. And that's usually one they like. (LAUGHTER)

JO REED: You recorded some dozen albums as a leader. And I think the first was Heavy Sounds with Elvin Jones.

RICHARD DAVIS: Oh my goodness gracious, yeah. When Elvin first came to New York, I went to hear him play. And I'm working around the corner from where he was working. So, I went over to this club to hear him play. And they were playing a ballad. I'd never heard a drummer play a ballad like that before. That was Elvin Jones.

JO REED: And there is an amazing version of Summer Time that you do on that.

RICHARD DAVIS: Summer Time, you want me to say how that got-

JO REED: I sure do.


JO REED: You knew that was coming.

RICHARD DAVIS: Bob something promoted that album. He was with Impulse Records.

JO REED: Thiele?

RICHARD DAVIS: Bob Thiele! Of course. Thanks. And, uh, he called and said, "Richard, I want you and Elvin and a guitar player- Pat something to come to the studio tomorrow and record. We said okay, so we went to the studio and me and Elvin are setting up there and Pat didn’t show up. And so we look at each other and Bob Thiele said, "Huh, why don’t you guys start playing?" And I always imagine me playing Summer Time with harps and flutes and clarinets and strings to make it a symphonette type of thing. And there I was with a drummer and I started playing the melody and Elvin started to take the mallets and started going around on the different drums making sounds.

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We played it for fifteen minutes, then Bob said, "Okay, that’s a take." Said, "Sure is a take. We’ll never do it the same way again." (Laughter)

JO REED: Frank Foster's song "Simone"--


JO REED: Talk a little bit about "Simone,"

RICHARD DAVIS: I played that song a million times with Frank Foster, who was the composer. (SINGS) And it was a nice place-- piece for me to bow the melody. And so, I'm playing with Frank Foster all the time on that piece.

And then one day I said, "Why don't I just play the melody one of these days?" And that's when I recorded the melody.

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And I sent the copy to Frank. Said, "This is-- something I owe to you," 'cause the melody he wrote was so beautiful. And even today if I'm to work up a concert for-- pieces "Simone" would be in the mix.

JO REED: You were in a band for a while that Thad Jones and Mel Lewis?

RICHARD DAVIS: I was in the band of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis for about-- five, six years. Thad wanted to get a big band he hired me as the bass player. Never heard a band like that before. Never heard harmonies like that before. And that's what he did. He raised the level of harmony in big bands during that time.

RICHARD DAVIS: I went to Russia with Thad Jones.

JO REED: Max Gordon went with you?

RICHARD DAVIS: Yeah, Max Gordon was there. (LAUGH) 'Cause he was-- he descends from Russians. It was a time for him to go over there. And he chose a good time to go over there with the band that was going there. Yeah, Max Gordon, what a man. Max wore on you. You just loved him, because of his attitude, because of his laidback feeling, you know. And so, he followed me once to my compartment on the train and-- he came out the next day and told the guys that, "Richard sleeps on the floor and he has his bass in the bed. (LAUGH)" Those compartments are small, you know. But he's right. I was on the floor and the bass is in the bed.

JO REED: That was 2014 Jazz Master Richard Davis in the first of a two-part interview. The Max Gordon he was referring to was the owner of the legendary jazz club, The Village Vanguard. Next week, Richard talks about classical music and his work with Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky, recording Astral Weeks with Van Morrison and Born to Run with Bruce Springsteen, and his years of teaching and attention to multiculturalism at the University of Wisconsin.

Richard Davis and the other 2014 Jazz Masters will be honored with a concert and ceremony on January 13  at JALC in New York City. The NEA is webcasting the event live---go to for details.

You've been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpt of "Summertime" composed by George Gershwin, and performed by Elvin Jones and Richard Davis, from the album, Heavy Sounds, used courtesy of Universal Music.

"Summertime" used by permission of Dubose and Dorothy Heyward Memorial Fund Publishing [ASCAP]; George Gershwin Music c/o Marc George Gershwin [ASCAP]; Ira Gershwin Music [ASCAP] d/b/a WB Music Corp % Warner Chappell Music Inc. [ASCAP] / 2. Concord Music Group [ASCAP]

Excerpt of "Tenderly" music by Walter Gross, lyrics by Jack Lawrence and performed live by Sarah Vaughan with Richard Davis.

"Tenderly" used by permission of Morris Edwin H & Co Inc c/o MPL Communications Inc. and Range Road Music Inc. c/o Carlin America Inc. [ASCAP]

Excerpt of  "Something Tender, Something Sweet," and "Out to Lunch" composed by Eric Dolphy from the album, Out to Lunch, used courtesy of Universal Music.

All Dolphy songs used by permission of HAL LEONARD MILWIN MUSIC CORP A/C M J Q MUSIC INC [BMI]

Excerpt of "Simone" composed by Frank Foster and "Lift Every Voice" composed by John Rosamond Johnson, performed by Richard Davis from The Bassist, used courtesy of Palmetto Records.

"Simone" used by permission of Swing That Music c/o Larry Spier Music LLC, NY, NY. All rights reserved including of performance. ã1971. [ASCAP]

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To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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JO REED: That's 2014 NEA Jazz Master Richard Davis playing the bass on the Van Morrison album, Astral Weeks.

And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.

Richard Davis is the bassist everybody wants to play with. He’s made some 3,000 recordings--and not just as a jazz musician, but across the genres of classical, pop, and rock.  Last week, we heard about his career in jazz and his musical relationships with legends like Ahmad Jamal, Sarah Vaughan, Eric Dolphy, and Elvin Jones.  In this, the second of a two-part interview we turn the spotlight on Davis's playing outside of jazz--for musicians like Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen, singers like Barbara Streisand and Frank Sinatra, and his continuing love-affair with classical music.

When Richard Davis was a boy coming up in Chicago, his teacher, Walter Dyett encouraged him to embrace all forms of music and insisted that Richard study classical bass as well as jazz.  This advice has served Richard well throughout his long career, and it's advice that he gives to his own students at the University of Wisconsin.  Richard's versatility and musical curiosity led him to New York in the 1950s.  And that same versatility allowed him to record iconic jazz albums with folks like Eric Dolphy and Elvin Jones, while he was also freelancing with the New York Philharmonic.

RICHARD DAVIS: That's what's so good about New York. Playing in different atmospheres, different-- ensembles, different kinds of music. You're recording on all levels of musics, different musics, you re-- performing at night in a jazz atmosphere and you doing a lot of commercials. You do a lot of everything. And that's what made it so much fun, because sometimes you go into a studio with no idea what you're gonna have to play. And they call you, 'cause they think you're versatile enough to do what they know you can do.

JO REED: Can you talk a little bit about the experience of working with Igor Stravinsky?

RICHARD DAVIS: Can I? You see this shoulder here? I haven't washed that shoulder in 60 years. 'Cause that's where he touched me.

JO REED: Who touched you there?

RICHARD DAVIS: Igor Stravinsky. Didn't say nothing. Just walked over to me, just, after the concert. I did three concerts with him over a weekend, Boston, New York and D.C.

And that last concert he had to exit off my side of the stage. And as he walked off the stage— he- he touched me. See, I loved him anyway. He was a jazz fanatic. And he wrote music for jazz orchestras. And I just loved-- what was that piece? Rites (SIC) of Spring!

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Man, I when I heard that piece, that helped me to understand Bartok, Oldenburg, all those other guys. And I liked-- I liked his look, small man with small glasses. And when he conducted it was so rhythmic and it was like his baton was just a part of his body. And I just loved being in his company. And Gunther Schuller got me the gig. Gunther and I too were very close with playing concerts together.

JO REED: And you also played with Leonard Bernstein.

RICHARD DAVIS: Yeah, Leonard Bernstein too. That was another dynamic conductor. When he conducted, man, you felt like you was the only one on the stage with him. He was conducting you. Another great one was Stokowski. He was that type too, and George Szell and those guys. But Bernstein I spent a year with playing in the New York Philharmonic.

And he was rhythmic, very rhythmic, strong sense of rhythm. And he would use so much energy. I think they had brought in oxygen tanks while he was on intermission. (LAUGH) A whole tank of (INAUDIBLE). They had some energy going.

JO REED: Now, I know music is music and good music is good music. But-- and genres are often very silly. But at the same time there has to be a difference in the making of the music between making classical music with a conductor in an orchestra and making jazz in a smaller ensemble where you're improvising more.

RICHARD DAVIS: You want me to address that?

JO REED: Yes, I would like you to address that.

RICHARD DAVIS: Addressing improvisational music, which is considered jazz and the non-improvisational music, which is considered classical, I would say that the big difference for me was to be a-- able to interpret what was already composed and written. How do you interpret it? Do you make this note short or shorter or longer? Do you phrase this melody because the harmony is rescinding and resolving?

Do you hold onto that note a little longer and let it slide into the slot or what? So, you're interpreting as you read. You read more into the music than what's there. And jazz- you doing all those things that- you’re composing and improvising, interpreting for the whole time you're playing. That's the big difference. And you don't have any music that you're looking at, 'cause you've examined all that in your head. That comes from memory. Beethoven was a great improviser. But that died out somewhere along the way. Those guys had figured bass lines and they improvise off of one note. But the thing is that melody is then repeated, repeated over and over again over the years. So, that improvisational thing is diminished, because people are repeating those notes for hundreds of years. They're not improvising. They're interpreting.

JO REED: In the meantime you're also doing work with-- with pop musicians. You're d-- you worked with Frank Sinatra. How did you end up working with Frank Sinatra?

RICHARD DAVIS: Okay. I might modify that and say that the band that was hired was there to support Frank Sinatra's recording. Frank Sinatra didn't say, "Let's get Richard Davis," you know. You're involved with a certain clique of musicians called-- studio recording musicians. There's a contractor-- Frank Sinatra's producer or his agent or some-- we're gonna record and called up this guy to get the musicians. He's going to call the contractor. And because I was very popular in recordings I would be the one that was called for this particular day, like a lot of other dates.

They know you can fit the bill, 'cause you could shape the music. You could interpret the music and you had a good recording sound on your instrument. I can't even remember what he was even in the studio. We finally put a track down and he came later to put his voice on that track. That happened lots of times.

JO REED: You also worked with Van Morrison or you worked on Van Morrison's album Astral Weeks, which is acclaimed as one of the best albums of all time. And you're playing has been cited by Greil Marcus as the greatest bass he has ever heard on a rock album.

RICHARD DAVIS: Well, I'll be darned. I mean, I'd be damned. (LAUGHTER)

JO REED: Now, the producer of Astral Weeks, Lewis Merenstein said you were pivotal to the creation of that album. Talk about you and Lewis Merenstein and Astral Weeks.

RICHARD DAVIS: Me and Lou Merenstein and Astral Weeks. That was a remarkable feeling in the studio.

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See, I had recorded for Lewis Merenstein on a lot of his-- productions, Mamas and the Papas, all the way down to uncles and aunts (LAUGH), nieces and nephews. I had recorded with so many people for Lou.

And so, he said, "Richard-- we have a guy coming in from Ireland or Scotland or somewhere," he said, "I want you to get a group together for him." So, I chose Jay Berliner on guitar- that guy knows the guitar, I chose Connie Kay on the drums- I called him “the security officer” because he made you feel secure. He sat there like a Buddha, still and just playing all those beautiful things with the sticks on this and that, and I chose Warren Smith on the vibes. And Warren Smith was always smiling (LAUGH). You know, he’s playing all these nice sounds on the vibes and all that stuff.

We went to the studio on the day of recording and Lou passes out the music sheets. See, a music sheet is just a skeletal frame of what is to be played. You have the melody and chords, nothing filling in on what to do with that. And that's why they depend on you to do it. And so, I started running down a couple of the songs in my head, you know, just to get familiar with the chord changes and all those kind of things. Oh, by the way, some guy come creeping into the studio who we had never seen before and he goes to the vocal booth and we didn't know who he was.

He never spoke to us, we never spoke to him. And Lou said, "Okay, we're gonna-- make a take." And you got headsets on so you believe it's him singing. And so then, on the first take, I just conceived this bass line on those chords and Lou said, "That's tomorrow's rock and roll bass line for bass players."

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I'm just playing. But people have come up to me asking me about that album ever since it happened.

JO REED: You also worked on two albums with Bruce Springsteen, including the iconic Born To Run.

RICHARD DAVIS: Yeah. It's a funny story.

JO REED: I'm ready.

RICHARD DAVIS: Well, Bruce wanted me on his album 'cause he had heard Astral Weeks with Van Morrison. I found that out maybe two or three years ago. Now, this might sideline the effect of Bruce Springsteen and those two CDs you mentioned. But it's in there somewhere. There was a young bass player in New York who thought I was God.

I never told him I was. (LAUGH) But he thought that I was God. He's always hanging around me. Wanted me to teach him. And I used to just kind of fluff him off a little bit. This day he came to my house with his girlfriend. And I said, "Look, man, I got to leave in about another hour and go do this recording session."

I say, "You want to come with me?"

"Yeah!" He got very excited. He and his girlfriend went to the studio, mind you, I don't who I'm recording with. I don't know what that music is about. When we get there, I found out later it was a guy named Bruce Springsteen in the control booth with the producer. Sure didn't matter to me. And so, then-- they say, "Richard, we're gonna play this track. We want you to put some bass on this track." "Okay." So, they played it and then the producer said, "Richard, that was-- that was good." He says, "But you're too close to the guitar line. Think of something different."

"Okay." They play it again. I put on what I thought was good enough. And they said, "Richard, you're too close to the drums. Can you play something different?" This young kid who was sitting in the control booth jumped up and said, "Do you know who you're talking to?!" (LAUGH)

He scared everybody and scared me too. Man, he thought I was God so nobody's gonna tell me what to play. So, I put the bass down and went in the control booth. I say, "You just be quiet and just sit here and listen."

JO REED: You know, even on your own CDs, you resist being put in a box. On “The Bassist” for example, you mixed jazz with spirituals like, “Go Down Moses.”

RICHARD DAVIS: Oh yeah. Was that on The Bassist too?

JO REED: It was indeed.

RICHARD DAVIS: Well, that's a prelude to a CD I want to do with all spirituals. I want to do a CD with all spirituals.

JO REED: Why do you want to do a CD of all spirituals?

RICHARD DAVIS: It's going back to the roots where I come from, Baptist church. And I just feel good going back home.

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RICHARD DAVIS: "Swing Lo Sweet Chariot" was my father's favorite hymnal, his favorite song. And he used to hum it around the house all the time. And when he would hum it I'd envision that he was thinking about angels coming down on a chariot to take him home.

And right now as I'm saying it to you I just felt a flush of skin crawling, 'cause that was my dad who I just loved. And there he was humming that song. And I used to practice all the time while he was sleeping, 'cause he worked nights and I'm practicing in the room next to him. He never complained.

JO REED: 1977 you have been named-- bass player of the year by Downbeat magazine eight times. You're really at the height of your success. And you get a phone call that changes your career completely. What happened?

RICHARD DAVIS: I made the mistake by answering the phone. (LAUGH) What happened when I got that phone call in 1977 from the University of Wisconsin? First of all, I was surprised and secondly, I didn't know where Madison, Wisconsin was. And I asked them, "Where is that?"

And they said, "It's near Milwaukee." As if I know Milwaukee, you know. And they say, "We want you to come out here and teach bass." And I said, "What else you want me to do?" "We want you to teach a jazz history and this-- " I said, "Don't you have somebody doing that?" And he said, "Yeah." And I said, "Why don't you stay with them. I know those guys. They do good jobs."

And then he said, ""Can we call you back in about six months to a year and offer the same thing?" I said, "Yeah." So, then I was thinking that-- I've always wanted to teach young people and I never had an opportunity to teach on that scale. And I said, "Possibly it's time for me to make a change." Twenty-three years in Chicago, twenty-three years in New York, now it's time for me to start on something else.

Meanwhile I'm asking friends of mine, "You know anything about college teaching?" And there's one woman whose horses I had been training said, "Ask for tenure." I said, "Tenure, what is that?" I'm completely naïve. She says, "That means they can't fire ya." Her husband, who never even spoke to me, he didn't speak to anybody, he said, "Ask them for tenure." Okay. And sure enough, they call me and they said, “We want you to come and we’re close to the time where we need an answer.” I was prepared.

And I said, "Now, tell me about this professor stuff you're offering me. You're offering me what is called Assistant Professor? Am I helping somebody? Am I assisting somebody?" Completely unaware. He said, "It's a position." I said, "Well, I don't like the first three letters." (LAUGH)

Had to laugh at that now, 'cause- “What other kinds of professors you got?" He said, "We have Associate." I don't like the first three letters in that. (LAUGH) But it sounded like I'm associating with you? I'm still associating with New York? I said, "I kinda like that. Now tell me what-- what other professor you have?" "Full professor." "Full professor?" Hmmm, I envisioned a guy sitting back resting on his laurels. He's done it all.

And I said, "I don't like the image of that either." (LAUGH) He probably thought I was crazy. I said, "I'll take Associate." And then he said, "Okay..." And then I said, "Tell me something about tenure." He said, "Well,” he said, "Well, we don't give that out until so-and-so-and-so-and-so." And I said, "Well, I'd like to have some." And he said he'd have to get back to the committee and see what they say. And then he got back to me and said, "The committee wants you to present ten letters of your peers." Boy, mind you, Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Stokowski, Janice Ian (PH), and everybody I'd worked with. I had those ten letters in a overnight. Sent the letters. He said, "They're gonna give you tenure."

Still didn't know what I'd gotten.

JO REED: Describe how you approach teaching.

RICHARD DAVIS: I approach teaching as a learning experience. I look forward to students teaching me, I think it's a equal sharing. I always say-- equate it by saying: A mother doesn't know how to be a mother of a child until her child begins to ask for something, crying, a look on the face, or whatever. And she has to figure out through her own experience-- is it milk? Is it a change of diaper? Is it to be cuddled?

That to me is a great analogy of what I do. I can teach students in a way depending on what they are, how they are. They might think I hate 'em. I'm giving him the rough-- tough love treatment. And then on the other hand another student, 'cause of the personality, I can genuinely hug him. But I'm always encouraging them to the potential, to do the best and don't worry about anything. Leave the worry to me. (LAUGH) (INAUDIBLE)-- do your best.

JO REED: What's the 5:00 AM social club?

RICHARD DAVIS: (LAUGH) Whoo, okay. I've disbanded the idea of the 5:00 AM social club lately, but if I don't get the right answer from a student when I ask them something I say, "I'm expecting a call from you 5:00 in the morning. I'm not expecting a call from you at 5:05. It's gotta be 5:00."

And the reason I set that time up is because I was single parenting and at 7:00 I'm going to give my daughter undivided attention to prepare for school. So, if you call me at 5:00 in the morning I'm free. Nobody's ever not called me at 5:00 in the morning. They give me the answer. I say, "Go back to sleep." That's it.

JO REED: What do you try to impart to students in your classes, especially when you're teaching about jazz?

RICHARD DAVIS: What I'm trying to impart on them is to appreciate the jazz artists as they were and as something that they can become. I always tell 'em that Charlie Parker wasn't born with a horn in his mouth. He was kicked off the stage a few times, 'cause of playing bad.

He got up and got back on the horse who had thrown him. It's hard work and the more hard work you do the more you're gonna not only love your instrument, you're gonna love yourself. And the thing I want you to do with that knowledge is to impart it to someone else. If you have that knowledge and keep it to yourself you might as well not have it.

Give it to someone else. Bring them along, when you do that you're learning more about yourself. And I preach that day in and day out.

JO REED: I also think when you were teaching the history of the music it's important for you to put the music itself in a social-political-historical context. It just didn't spring out of the air, but it came out of a particular time and a particular place.

RICHARD DAVIS: You've been talking to somebody, 'cause that's exactly what I do. I, you know, teach the music-- a time and place besides the music itself 'cause the music comes from something happening in society. Synoptics, I call it. And then-- I'll tell a student, well, you know, in this period of time this was happening. I try to get them to approach the music globally, then cone [sic] it down to what we're doing in the class.

And they can see where it comes from. And I-- I-- on my description, I say this music is about a black person in white society. It's another culture. And I try to get them to know-- to know the culture that creates the music.

JO REED: Well, another thing that you're doing on campus and in the city itself of Madison is raising consciousness and creating conversations about race and racism. You do various activities in this. Can you talk about your various-- there are-- you do various activities in this. Can you talk about some of them and how-- how they came to be and where you see this conversation going forward?

RICHARD DAVIS: Well, I've been having the need to fight for social injustices-- against social injustices for a long time. I'm conscious of the fact that lots of people are not aware that they exist, because they live in the privileged world. And they don't have to discuss about racism, because all the books tell them who they are in school.

Because the curriculum is designed for one side. So, when they come into my classes at the university I make them aware of education items that were not part of the system. They were dismissed, for example, one student told me, "You talk about Martin Luther King and Black History Month. We never talked about that in school."

“The teacher told us we don't have to deal with that 'cause we don't have black students in the class." But it-- it tells you how the disease of racism is perpetuated, 'cause people who are not a member of the oppressed group are not learning anything about the oppressed group. If they're learning something about the oppressed group they feel the need, possibly, to make changes.

JO REED: It's a hard conversation for Americans to have.

RICHARD DAVIS: It's a hard conversation. And especially (INAUDIBLE) between parents and their children. (So, I'm dedicated-- to that. And that's why in our facilitations-- I make sure there's a white female facilitating with me as a co-facilitator, 'cause then they can see how we intertwine with the same thing.

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JO REED: What does it mean to be named a Jazz Master?

RICHARD DAVIS: 13:44:39;20 Being named an NEA Jazz Master means that I've been recognized for accomplishments I have made in an indigenous art form. I was joining a elite group of people who had gotten that award before me and I know all of them. I've worked with most of them and I've felt like somebody's telling me I belong in that crowd.

JO REED: I think you could be one of the most recorded bass players ever across genres, can you speculate how that happened, how you ended up in that position?

RICHARD DAVIS: Well, I've recorded at least 3,000 recordings over a period of-- I don't know how many years, maybe 24. But-- word of mouth gets around. "Get so-and-so, 'cause he can do so-and-so. Get so-and-so, 'cause he can do so-and-so." And you get all these calls and you say to yourself, "This is what Mama was talking about when she said, 'Do your very best at whatever you're doing and don't worry about anything else and it-- and it'll come to you.'" And I said, "That's what she was telling me." And she made me do my very best (LAUGH) she-- she saw to that.

JO REED: Richard Davis, Congratulations and thank you. And thank you for being so generous with your time. I really appreciate it.

RICHARD DAVIS: Jo Reed, I appreciate your time, spending the time to research all this and to question me on things that I might have even forgotten about. (LAUGH) So, thank you too, and your crew.

JO REED: That was 2014 Jazz Master Richard Davis in the second of a two-part interview.  
Richard Davis and the other 2014 Jazz Masters will be honored with a concert and ceremony on January 13th at JALC in New York City.  The NEA is webcasting the event live---go to for details.

You've been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpt from The Rite of Spring, composed by Igor Stravinsky and performed by the NY Philarmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, used courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.

Excerpt from “Astral Weeks,” “Sweet Thing,” and “Madame George,” composed by Van Morrison from the album, Astral Weeks, used courtesy of Warner Music Group.
“Astral Weeks,” “Sweet Thing,” used by permission of WB Music Corp. o/b/o Caldeonia Soul Music [ASCAP] and “Madame George” used by permission of Universal Music Publishing [BMI].

Excerpt from "Lift Every Voice" composed by John Rosamond Johnson,  “Simone” composed by Frank Foster  and Go Down Moses performed by Richard Davis from the album, The Bassist, used courtesy of Palmetto Records.
“Simone” used by permission of Swing That Music c/o Larry Spier Music LLC, NY, NY. All rights reserved including of performance. ã1971. [ASCAP]

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at You subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. 

Next week 2014 Jazz Master Anthony Braxton

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.  For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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