In New York, I could play with anybody, [Leopold] Stokowski, Stravinsky, people like that, because in New York, it was more what kind of a musician are you, instead of what kind of race you come from.
When initially contacting legendary bassist Richard Davis for this profile, the response was a simple "Call at six am your time any day." Since Davis has been based in Wisconsin since the '70s, this meant for him a talk at five in the morning. A far cry from the stereotypical jazz musician who didn't know there were two 8 o'clocks in a day, Davis needs all the time he can get for his various activities. Besides performances and recordings, he is a music professor at the University of Wisconsin, is heavily involved in race relations on campus and runs the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists Inc., a non-profit organization.
Davis, who will turn 75 years old shortly after his upcoming reprise of last year's Bass Hits concert, is best known as the only bassist to have performed with Eric Dolphy and Igor Stravinsky, Sarah Vaughan and Pierre Boulez. His mellifluous arco technique is unparalled, the result of listening openly and never limiting himself to one avenue of expression. "Music is music. You play this, you play that. That's how my teachers taught me to think," he asserted unequivocally, firm and confident despite the early hour. "Some of the first bass players...used the bow to play the walking bass line. And I heard all of that coming up as a kid... Therefore, when you start to study books of bass methods, you start out with the bow no matter what your intentions are... All that comes through osmosis of what you're hearing, what you want to do and how you want to express yourself. And I'm teaching European classical music now at the University so there must be some intertwining of what I heard as a kid, what I heard working with Sarah Vaughan, wanting to imitate those vocal sounds. I'd say I'm a product of lots of different experiences with that bow."
His mention of Vaughan is a reminder of his indisputable musical legacy (in 1964 alone he played on Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch, Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, Joe Henderson's In 'n Out, Charles Lloyd's Discovery!, Tony Williams' Lifetime, Kenny Dorham's Trompeta Toccata and Lucky Thompson's Lucky Strikes to name a few). However, that morning Davis was more interested in discussing the racial divide he saw as a young musician and now sees as an established educator. "My environment with race issues started the day I was born. You're born with dark skin and that itself brings on attitudes of other people who are not dark-skinned to see you as someone to be oppressed and not to be given equal chances in society. So that is something that is permanent," said Davis. "Right now on the campus we have students fasting because of the tuition hikes. The tuition hikes are telling us that we don't want someone of a certain social-economic class to survive on the campus. So only those who have money can go to school and that's clear-cut across the campus and Wisconsin. And that is exactly what was happening 4 or 500 years ago. Certain people are not supposed to have a right to education, and equal opportunity to become educated."
The concept of equal opportunity had a particular resonance with Davis when he was trying to establish himself as musician. The dual path of jazz and classical music was, and still is, uncommon and perilous though he was ultimately successful. "I was 18 years old and I could play any and all of the European classical music but you weren't allowed to participate in the symphony orchestra because there were racial issues and prejudices that kept you from participating. They didn't want to see you. I auditioned and I was never given a chance to perform in the orchestra. There are a few conductors I know of who didn't care what color you were like George Szell of the Cleveland Symphony, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic...but then because of them going on Southern tours, they themselves had to think twice before they allowed that to happen... In New York, I could play with anybody, [Leopold] Stokowski, Stravinsky, people like that, because in New York, it was more what kind of a musician are you, instead of what kind of race you come from. Jazz has a long history of racial input too. You could not mix with white musicians on the same bandstand in the '20s and '30s, maybe some part of the '40s. So this country's biggest system is race and class. Nothing has really changed there. Institutionalized racism is as rampant as it was when it started in 1492."