Richard Davis, Part 1

2014 NEA Jazz Master Richard Davis
Richard Davis

Photo by Ken Halfmann

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.

One of the great bassists Richard Davis remembers a few of jazz musicians he's played with -- like Sun Ra, Ahmad Jamal, Sarah Vaughan, Elvin Jones, and Eric Dolphy.