Art Davis and the Mystery of Making It

Coleman Hawkins used to tell of a young player he heard in the Midwest. “He had it,” Bean said, “but I told him, ‘You’ll never make it unless you get to New York.’” Hawkins never mentioned him again, and all these years later, I’ve forgotten the musician’s name. I expect like a number of truly inventive local and regional players who have remained unknown outside their territory, that tenor player stayed where he was, for whatever reasons.

But Art Davis, a bassist with a stunning command of his instrument, who made any kind of a gig—from Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie to James Brown and Minnie Pearl—did make it on the New York jazz scene. He was John Coltrane’s favorite bassist and Charles Mingus had the same highest regard for his sound, time and a voice that was authoritatively his own.

But because, as players back then used to say, Davis had “big ears,” he could fuse that voice into just about any mosaic without losing it. I remember those Coltrane numbers that could last for well over an hour with, as Davis recalls, “people shouting, just like in a holy-roller church” and Davis stretching out as far as Coltrane.

Art Davis, off the stand, also made himself heard. As brilliantly at ease in classical music as in jazz, he applied and was denied a place in symphony orchestras. As I wrote, at the time, in an article for the now defunct magazine, The Reporter, black musicians were frozen out of those jobs, partly because Jim Crow was in the wings but also because of favoritism. First chair players especially–all of whom were white—would push their very best students—all of whom were white—into some of the positions as they opened.

Art, in interviews with me, among others, would challenge symphony orchestras to pit him against any classical bassist of their choice. There was no response. He kept speaking and writing about this form of exclusion—including the steep hurdles for women in those orchestras and now feels that he lost a good many gigs in other fields because he was targeted as a troublemaker.

After scuffling for some 10 years in New York, Art moved on to California where he teaches part time at the University of California at Irvine, Orange Coast College and Goldenwest in Orange County. He also gives private lessons for advanced students and for professionals who feel the need to be challenged.

Based in Long Beach, he works around town and visits schools of all grades to spread the gospel of jazz, as Art Blakey used to. He also has a nonprofit organization, Better Advantages for Students and Society (B.A.S.S.), that awards scholarships to students, in and out of music, who keep growing but need the extra bread.

In terms of the national scene, Davis has slipped out of sight. Recently, I spoke about John Coltrane at the annual John Coltrane tribute and concert at Northeastern University in Boston. Some of the musicians were talking about Art Davis and wondered what he was doing now. None of the jazz labels has asked him to head a session as a leader and instrumentalist or as a composer. To the older players I spoke to, Art was sort of a vanished legend.

Not surprisingly, however—in view of the history of advanced jazz appreciation in other climes—Art Davis still has a considerable following in Germany and Japan. And not long ago, he toured Europe with David Murray’s All-Stars. Murray, himself notably outspoken, has said: “A lot of people have lost the idea of having a signature sound. Still, when you get to be about 30 or 35 years old, you should be developing into your own sound, but now they’ve gone for excessive notes.”

David Murray knows a signature sound when he hears one. In Edward Berger’s book, Bassically Speaking (Scarecrow Press) about George Duvivier (as magisterial a presence off as well as on the stand), Duvivier says of Coleman Hawkins, who gave him his first important gig: “Hawk never stopped listening…. You never knew what would come out. It was almost unnerving how intently he could listen.”

That’s how I used to feel watching and listening to Art Davis during those Coltrane nights when time stopped, except for jazz time. Davis is far from idle, but he says, “My abilities have still not yet been fully challenged.” That reminded me of what Jimmy Rowles said when I asked him what he did between gigs. “I listen for the phone to ring,” said Jimmy.

Originally published in March 2001

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