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Richard Davis: Call Me Cousin

Richard Davis

Lemme tell you a sideline story,” says Richard Davis. “I was in my car about a year or two ago, and when I turned the radio on there was a jazz show. I remember [listening to] the bass player, and I said to myself, ‘Good God, who is that? I hope I never run into that guy!’ After the song was over, the DJ said, ‘That was Andrew Hill with Richard Davis on bass.'”

Davis erupts in a throaty laugh and says, “It was myself! I thought, ‘Damn, I should get back to doing some of that.'”

It’s true. Most bass players would kill to have the parts of his career Richard Davis forgot. The Chicago-born bass player came up with talent and a technique so broad he could play with anyone-and he pretty much did. His graceful way with the changes impressed a mainstream master like Sarah Vaughan. She kept him in the band for five years. Davis’ ease with unconventional form and odd harmony caught the ears of young mavericks like Andrew Hill, Bobby Hutcherson and Eric Dolphy. For years, they rang him up nearly every time they went to the studio. No self-respecting jazz fan could claim even a passing familiarity with the jazz of the ’50s through the ’70s without having heard Davis’ pizzicato or his sublime bow work. And that just touches on his career in jazz. He also performed under the baton of Igor Stravinsky, put together the band for Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and set down bass tracks for Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

“I can think of some cats who can walk better than Richard, and some who can strum the bass better, but I honestly can’t think of any that can do everything as well as Richard. He knows the bass thoroughly,” said Bobby Hutcherson just after he recorded his soon-to-be-classic Blue Note 1965 LP Dialogue with the bassist. Hutcherson wasn’t blowing hot air. Davis did know his instrument thoroughly, and he still does-though you have to be quick to catch him on one of his two or three yearly trips to New York.

Modest, polite and quick to laugh, Davis now teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He signs his letters “Cousin Richard,” and would rather share stories about his students, collaborators, mentors and especially his daughter, Persia, than talk about himself.

Richard Davis did not pick up the bass until the relatively late age of 15, but he grew up in the music-saturated Chicago of the ’30s and ’40s. The city Davis remembers contained so many notable jazz and blues musicians that the walls of the clubs must have bulged. “You heard jazz and blues music all over the place,” Davis says. “[It was] in all the local bars and the alleys. You could walk around the corner-I lived on 47th street-and hear Memphis Minnie, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters, B.B. King. You heard all kinds of stuff in Chicago-guys playing guitar in the alley somewhere, or on somebody’s back porch. [They would have] a ring on their finger made out of the neck of a whiskey bottle to get that twangy sound.”

The man who set Davis on his lifelong path, however, was his high school music instructor, Walter Dyett. Under Dyett’s direction, the DuSable High School music program turned out future luminaries like Ford turned out automobiles. Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Johnny Griffin and Gene Ammons all came through the same program. “He was a very powerful man, a very spiritual man,” Davis says. “This guy was also hard. The kids would put their cigarettes out when they saw him coming. The principal, they wouldn’t put nothing out when they saw him coming.”

Dyett invited Davis out to his house, where the young bassist studied harmony for two years. Even after Davis graduated, Dyett would call him back to check up on his progress. Dyett, who himself played jazz on the banjo and classical music on the violin, first suggested that Davis pursue both jazz and classical music concurrently.

Davis also benefited from the influence of a slightly older bassist, Karl Byrom, whose bout with tuberculosis held him back several grades in school and eventually killed him. “He was a very advanced bass player in jazz,” Davis says. “He introduced me to bass players on record. He told me about Milt Hinton, Jimmy Blanton and Slam Stewart. His not graduating was my fortune.”

While many of Davis’ peers headed south on music scholarships, he elected to stay in the city. He studied with Rudolf Fahsbender, contra bassist with Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and took classes at Vandercook College of Music during the day while gigging in burlesque houses by night. Gangsters ran many of those clubs, and according to Davis his particular burlesque out in Calumet was no exception. “It was kind of exciting,” Davis says. “Kids are always excited about gangsters.” The real draw for Davis was the house pianist known at the time as Sonny Blount.

“Sun Ra was quite a mystic then. He would do things that were just impossible. We were playing behind a screen, a mesh so we could really see the dancer. I guess the audience just saw shadows. One time he said, ‘See the guy in the corner drunk? I’m going to sober him up.’ We were playing “Body and Soul” and each chorus got more and more dissonant in the chords. Before I knew it, that guy was standing up at attention. Then [Sun Ra] looked at me and said, ‘Told you.’ He would say things and then he’d prove it to you right away.”

Davis found his first big break as the bassist for pianist Ahmad Jamal. In Chicago, Jamal already had an established reputation, a polished style and a set book, which made the band an advantageous place for Davis to be. The pianist boosted Davis’ career from the start. “He asked me one day who my favorite piano players were, and I said, ‘Oscar Peterson, Earl Hines, King Cole,'” Davis says. “He said, ‘Ask me who is my favorite bass player is.’ I said, ‘Who’s your favorite bass player?’ I thought he was going to say somebody like Ray Brown or Oscar Pettiford. He said, ‘You.’ I said, ‘Me?’ He said, ‘Yes, you because you’re here with me.’ That taught me so much, man, because I learned to appreciate what I had. There wasn’t too much difference in our ages, but he had that wisdom even then.”

Davis’ entree into Jamal’s band also paved the way for his move to New York. It wasn’t a seamless transition, and it almost never happened. Chicago pianist Don Shirley planned to take his trio to New York, but his bassist didn’t want to go, so he arranged to switch places with Davis and join Jamal’s group himself.

“At the very last moment, I said, ‘Man, I ain’t going to New York. Gimme my job back,'” Davis says, laughing. “Know what he told me? ‘Get your ass out of Chicago. You belong in New York.’ If he hadn’t said that, I might never have left Chicago. I was too scared. I tell [my students] that story now, so they know that they can make it, too.”

At the recommendation of drummer Roy Haynes, a friend of Davis’ who was playing with Sarah Vaughan at the time, Davis took a room in a hotel right across the street from Birdland. Davis moved in and spent two solid days in his hotel room. Davis did eventually step outside, but cutting into the top New York jazz and classical scenes would not be automatic or easy. The bassist remembers hanging out at the musicians union and picking up spare gigs. One involved playing at an amusement park for $11. But since he lived across from Birdland he couldn’t help but run into musicians. After all, he lived in the same building as a few of them.

“I stayed in the hotel and practiced all day long-I didn’t have no other interests,” Davis says. “The musicians who stayed in the hotel heard me practice. They’d come knock on the door and say, ‘Man, what’s that stuff you’re playing?’ I’d play some jazz and some classical, because I was gigging on both ends-jazz and classical. People would bring their bass players by to hear me play, and I was beginning to feel confident and good. I remember Percy Heath coming by there. Paul Chambers, Milt Hinton, George Duvivier and Al McKibbon. Al McKibbon and I are still close today.”

A few out-of-town classical orchestras offered jobs to Davis, but his heart was with jazz, and he decided to stay in New York. So when the bass chair opened in Sarah Vaughan’s band, Davis was there to take it.

“People would ask, ‘Where’d you go to school?’ and I’d say, ‘University of Vaughan’ just to tell them what I thought of her,” Davis says. “I learned from being with her, Roy Haynes and [pianist and musical director] Jimmy Jones. Jones was an orchestra full of harmony. Listen to all that stuff. Good God, you won’t hear it nowhere else.

“I thought of her as being one of the greatest,” Davis says. “Jimmy Jones said he thought she was one of the greatest, too, but, he said, ‘Don’t forget Ella Fitzgerald.’ I said I was raised on Fitzgerald. He said, ‘That’s the problem-go back and listen to her. You just took her for granted.’ So I did. But I still thought Sarah was the greatest. She had a sound that nobody else did.”

Davis spent five years with Vaughan before he started to think about getting into something a little bit different. He found it, of all places, on a subway platform in New York. Eric Dolphy walked up, introduced himself and asked Davis if he was busy the next week.

“I thought he was Ornette Coleman. I had never seen either of them in person,” Davis says. “Anyway, he knew who I was. I said, ‘I ain’t doing nothing.’ He said, ‘Well, I got a gig.’ I said, ‘OK.’ Ha!”

Dolphy’s music didn’t sound much like Vaughan’s, but Davis knew he was in the right place. “After a couple of nights, [it felt like] there was a marriage. All of a sudden the band clicked and I felt that that’s where I belonged-right there with Eric Dolphy. It was just me and him. Nobody else existed-audience, other band members, nothing.”

Davis stayed in New York until 1977, when the jazz scene and studio musician’s work began to dry up. “Walk in and do recording dates three times a day? That ain’t there no more,” the bassist says. The University of Wisconsin came calling, and Davis, thinking about all the musicians and teachers who helped make his career, decided to become an educator. Davis left New York with only three regrets: that he never worked with Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver or John Coltrane. Of the three, Davis might have come closest to working with Coltrane.

“I forget the year, but I was in Birdland, hanging out and listening to [Coltrane],” Davis says. “[Between sets], I went back in the kitchen where he was, and he said, ‘Richard, I want you to come in the band.’ You know what I did? I walked away and didn’t say nothing. First of all, it scared the shit out of me. Second of all, one of my friends, Jimmy Garrison was playing there. I thought that I dreamt that. So a few years ago, I said to McCoy [Tyner], ‘Did Trane ever say anything to you about me working with the band?’ You know what he said? He said, ‘He talked about you all the time.’ Then I believed it. I don’t remember answering him. I don’t remember looking at him. I just walked away. And the thing was I knew I could fit that picture. Sometimes you know what you could do with a band that you hear. I knew I was the bass player for him.”

Davis may have traded a room in New York City for a house in Madison, but his schedule has hardly slowed to a Midwestern pace. Davis still records semiregularly; his last date as a leader was 2001’s The Bassist: Homage to Diversity (Palmetto). He has plans for an all-Ellington session and would like to record the entirety of Sarah Vaughan’s Brazilian Romance as a tribute to his former boss. Up until the late ’80s, when he moved to downtown Madison, he indulged in a childhood passion unusual for city kids: riding horses. (Davis and another neighborhood kid, Bo Diddley, used to work at a Chicago-area stable.) He also coordinates antiracism programs at Wisconsin. Like his old mentor, Walter Dyett, Davis spends the bulk of his time working with young music students, a profession which he clearly loves.

“I enjoy teaching very much. I have some promising students at this moment and I have some who have gone on to be professors. Some have gone on to be players in symphony orchestras. The latest one to get a job is now coprincipal in Sydney, Australia,” Davis says. The bassist also coordinates a yearly bass conference, Foundation for Young Bassists, which yearly brings together 80 to 100 bass students and 19 bass professors. For his upcoming bass camp, the 12th overall, Davis plans to duet with an 11-year-old bassist with eight years’ playing experience. “He started when he was three, playing a half-size cello,” Davis says. “He and his mom stopped by my office and he played ‘Ave Maria.’ I said, ‘Man where’d you learn that from?’ He said, ‘From your recording.’ Ha!”

Originally Published