Richard Davis, Madison's Jazz Legend

by Dean Robbins
| June 11, 2015
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Wisconsin isn’t the jazz capital of the world, but we do have one thing New York City doesn’t have. He’s Richard Davis, bass player extraordinaire. Davis has lived in the Madison area since the 1970s, when the University of Wisconsin lured him away from full-time performing to be a professor.

He grew up in the Chicago ghetto, strumming on a broom before he got his first bass. He immersed himself in old recordings by Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats that he found in downtown record shops. These self-directed listening sessions would be the foundation of his musical career.

Davis’ first break came in 1957, when the renowned vocalist Sarah Vaughan hired him as her bass player. But he took a left turn with his next job, partnering with the avant-garde saxophonist Eric Dolphy.

I first heard Davis on an edgy Dolphy album called Out to Lunch. The bassist isn’t usually the guy who catches your attention, but this one made his presence known. He leaped out of the speakers with booming double stops, expressive glissandos and soulful bowing.

After noting Richard Davis’ name on the album jacket, I started seeing it everywhere. There he was setting the mood on Van Morrison’s melancholy pop masterpiece Astral Weeks. There he was laying down a suave rhythm behind Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. He even turned up in orchestral settings, playing under conductors like Leonard Bernstein.

Then I moved to Madison and discovered Davis here. It was a thrill to see a musician of his stature playing around town, from concert halls to humble bars. I felt like I’d stumbled into jazz heaven, even though I was a thousand miles away from New York City.

In fact, I saw one of my most memorable Richard Davis shows on a trip to New York. He often headlined there during semester breaks from the university, and I caught him one night at the Village Vanguard. A framed picture of him hung on the club’s wall – right near one of Louis Armstrong, the musician he’d idolized as a boy.

Leading an all-star quintet, Davis played with fire that night. With his fluid time and his aggressive pizzicato style, he made every chorus an adventure.

I mention this New York concert only because of an unusual moment at the end of it. I watched Davis greeting people in the crowd, including a woman who asked him for directions to Madison.

It seemed like an odd request--something you wouldn’t expect in the middle of Greenwich Village. But the more I thought about the exchange, the more it made sense. Of course anyone interested in the jazz bass would need directions to Madison. Because Richard Davis has singlehandedly made Madison the jazz bass capital of the world.



See more on Richard Davis in this Wisconsin Life video

Tags: jazz / bass / musician / richard davis / albums / jazz bass / music festival / teacher
Dean Robbins

Dean Robbins is a journalist and author based in Madison. He has won state and national awards for arts, features and news stories, and has contributed to magazines and newspapers around the country.