Richard Davis, Part 2

2014 NEA Jazz Master
Richard Davis playing bass

Photo by Ken Halfmann

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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 arts.gov 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 Arts.gov. 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.

Bassist Richard Davis talks about his musical life outside of jazz -- working with folks like Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky. [30:08]