The Thoreau of Jazz

As a teenager in Boston, one of my heroes—after Duke Ellington—was a fellow New Englander, Henry David Thoreau, who, as an unyielding abolitionist and opponent of the Mexican-American war, went to jail rather than pay six years of back taxes.

Years later, I learned that Martin Luther King, Jr., was first turned on to nonviolent resistance by reading Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience.” King wrote, “Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.”

Art Davis, who died of a heart attack at 73 on July 29, was, for me, the Henry David Thoreau of jazz. I’ve known many people in the jazz family with admirable integrity, but Art Davis’ was fiercely unbreakable, whatever the cost.

As a musician, he was a total master of the instrument, always searching deeper into it—and himself. When Davis was with John Coltrane, at the Village Gate in New York, there were nights when John would turn a single song into a tumultuous microcosm for over an hour and a half. Art soared along with him, reaching climax after climax with, as Art remembered, “people shouting, just like in a holy-roller church.”

Art Davis was a complete musician, as authoritative in a symphonic orchestra, a Broadway pit band, network studio assignment or accompanying Judy Garland or country music comedienne Minnie Pearl.

He also became a pariah in much of the music business for years because he insisted on breaking the color line in symphony orchestras. As I had reported in The Reporter magazine in the late 1950s, it was not only that Jim Crow managed much of that hiring: Also, as positions opened in an orchestra, the first-chair players (all of them white) would get management to hire their best students (also white) for those chairs.

For years, Art, having been turned down by leading symphony orchestras, challenged the conductors to pit him against any classical bassist they chose in an open competition. There were no takers. In the 1970s, he sued the New York Philharmonic for racial discrimination, and as the years went on, until the case was dismissed, Art lost a lot of the previous highly diversified work for which he had been sought. Obviously, the man was a “troublemaker.”

But because of the lawsuit, the attendant publicity and Art’s continuing challenge to put any symphonic bass part—however deeply traditional or unprecedentedly avant-garde—before him in competition for a gig in any world-famous orchestra, he became the major force that created “blind auditions.” It became the practice, when there was an opening for any instrument, to audition the player behind a screen so that those judging his or her abilities—Art also protested gender discrimination—could hear the music, but not see the musician. He lost the lawsuit, but won the battle.

During the years he was “blacklisted” (literally as well as figuratively) by many of his former employers, Art, with his customary determination, forged himself another career. While Ahmad Jamal sadly said that Art was becoming “a forgotten legend” in music, Art became a clinical psychologist. A formidable student at whatever interested him, Art earned master’s degrees from the City University of New York. And then, always competing with himself, he earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at New York University in 1982. When he was asked about his lost years in music, Art, always an ironic pragmatist, said, “I wouldn’t be Dr. Art Davis if it hadn’t happened.”

In 1986, he moved to California, where he continued counseling patients and also teaching the bass. He and I often spoke on the phone, talking not only about music—he had begun performing again—but also about politics, books, increasingly discordant world affairs and much else.

Art led his own jazz combos, made a few recordings, toured Europe and Japan, and as I wrote in JazzTimes (“The Mystery of Making It,” March 2001), he set up “a nonprofit foundation, Better Advantages for Students and Society (B.A.S.S.), that awarded scholarships to students, in and out of music, who kept growing, but needed extra bread.”

One of the last times we spoke, Art said he felt “his music abilities have still not yet been fully challenged.” While he did remain active musically, he was no longer in as much demand as those abilities deserved, but I’m sure he kept challenging himself.

Art can still be heard on such recordings as John Coltrane’s Ascension, Volumes 1 and 2 of The Africa/Brass Sessions and Ole Coltrane. And while I was producing albums for Candid Records, I was privileged to have Art on Booker Little’s Out Front.

Booker was only 23 when he died of uremia soon after that recording. Booker, like Art, was a deeply thoughtful, venturesome musician who not only had a signature sound, but very personal stories to tell in his music that kept resonating after the music stopped. Jan Jordan, a pianist who often played with Art during his years in California, said, “He always reached out to the people in the audience”—and connected.

In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau wrote, “When a sixth of the population of a nation, which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty, are slaves … I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.”

For Thoreau, rebellion was as natural as believing in himself. The same was true of Art Davis.

Originally published in November 2007

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