Monday, September 15, 2014

The Philosphy of the Spiritual: Part Three of My Interview with Bassist/Educator/Activist Richard Davis

Richard Davis

Richard Davis has always followed his muse throughout his career. A world class bassist, an avid horseman, a respected educator a socially conscious activist. 

Whether it be as an accomplished studio musician on mainstream albums by the likes of Barbara Streisand or as a pivotal driving force on a seminal album by Van Morrison or the rock steady bassist behind in inimitable Ms. Sarah Vaughan, Davis has always left his mark. As an important member of the progressive ensembles of Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, Sun Rah  and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Davis has always let his music speak for itself. People noticed.




His ability as a classically trained bassist, had at one time, inspired a younger Davis to pursue a symphonic career. Racism often reared its ugly head and he was repeatedly rejected by the firmly entrenched white establishment that dominated the symphony scene in the fifties, sixties and seventies. He was often times not given the courtesy of a call back, even when it was obvious that he was the most accomplished of the contestants applying for the position. Undeterred, the talented  Davis could not be denied, eventually playing with such classical luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Gunther Schuller and Igor Stravinsky. Cream inevitably rises to the top.

Leaving the established jazz community in New York in 1977, where he was a respected member,Richard Davis's career took another turn, this time assuming the role of educator and mentor as a professor of classical bass at the University of Wisconsin, where he still teaches. Along the way Davis has made some beautiful music and inspired scores of aspiring musicians. Despite his generous spirit and stated goal to pass on his accumulated knowledge to the next generation, Davis, as a Black man in a predominantly white state, has seen and felt firsthand the ugly effects of racism, even in the bucolic setting of the University of Wisconsin in Madison where he lives. Undaunted by a lifetime of racially motivated slights, both real and perceived, Davis steadfastly maintains a surprisingly positive attitude and believes in sowing the seeds of racial harmony and acceptance. He supports education about racism and its roots and is hopeful that with open conversation between the races, we can come together in harmony.



As a musician and educator he has formed the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists, which promotes educating students on the bass at an early age. As an activist Davis, formed the Retention Action Program (R.A.P.), an organization dedicated to increasing the retention levels for students of color at U of W. He is also President of the Madison Wisconsin Institute for Racial Healing, an organization dedicated to understanding the history and pathology of racism, with the goal of hoping to heal racism in individuals, communities, and institutions both in Wisconsin and throughout the USA.  So it was of great interest to speak to Mr. Davis about his experiences and listen to some of his philosophies about racism and how we can educate ourselves to prevent its continued proliferation to the next generation.

NOJ: Let’s get some of your views on the state of race relations in this country. In the nineteen sixties do you think you took a militant stance against racism?

RD: No I didn't take a militant stance, because militancy defeats the purpose. I didn't take any particular stand, I just thought it was something that I didn't like. I didn't go parading around.

NOJ: You have been an educator at University of Wisconsin in Madison since 1977. What made you leave New York?

RD: I just decided that I wanted to start teaching some younger people what I had learned.

NOJ: How did you find Wisconsin?

RD: Cold.

NOJ: Were the people of Wisconsin receptive to you as a Black educator in a relatively predominantly White state?

RD: Wisconsin has a reputation for being a racial state. I think … some people feared me because I was Black. They thought I was aloof, but I had to protect myself….Wisconsin is very racist.

NOJ: I take it you were a bit of a pioneer there?

RD: What do mean by a pioneer?

NOJ: Somebody that went ahead of other people and blazed the way. I take it by now there is much more diversity and integration in the school system?

RD: It’s still the same, nothing has changed.

NOJ: Well, that’s disheartening.

RD: I’m still working on diversity. I have some allies. I have lots of allies and I have a lot of people who don’t even realize that it exists there.

NOJ: Has affirmative action helped Wisconsin integrate more people of color into the educational system?

RD: When you look at the numbers there is still 3% Black and 8 % people of color and I don’t know what they are doing about that.

NOJ: You are now 84 years young. You have won numerous awards and accolades throughout your career including the nation’s highest honor the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship Award just this year. You have formed the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists, The Retention Action Project (RAP), and SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) all reach out programs that inspire harmony and love. You've said you wanted to live to be 137 in order to do the things you still want to accomplish. What are some of those things that you feel remain undone for you?

RD: Well I think that going on a global quest will influence every part of your life. I talk about the oneness of humankind, the fact that we all come out of the same womb of an African woman. Only one tenth of one percent (of our genetic makeup) accounts of the difference is our skin color.*

* "If you ask what percentage of your genes is reflected in your external appearance, the basis by which we talk about race, the answer seems to be in the range of .01 percent," said Dr. Harold P. Freeman, the chief executive, president and director of surgery at North General Hospital in Manhattan, who has studied the issue of biology and race. "This is a very, very minimal reflection of your genetic makeup," Quote from a New York Times article August 2000, entitled "Do Races Differ, Not Really, Genes Show" by Natalie Angier.

Somewhere along the way it has been forgotten and we see each other with different skin instead of looking at each other as ourselves; one person, one human being. That theory, if it is practiced and gets a resurgence of the truth, it will cease a lot of problems. Like that shooting in Ferguson, MO. That’s because the police are afraid of Black people and Black people are afraid of White people. It comes from fear and ignorance. If we can gt past that fear factor and that ignorance factor we will make tremendous strides. You see,  this country is not built on equalization for everybody.  It is built on that fact that some of the White people are oppressors and the Black people are being oppressed by this attitude. A White kid gets treated different then a Black kid. Have you ever heard of a White kid being shot down by the police? So it is just a matter of equal treatment of each other and this will all go away.

NOJ:  Do you think both sides can reconcile their differences?

RD: Sure I think so, especially if there is enough going on and if people gather and talk to each other. Most of all White people have to talk to White people; Black people talking to White people is a good thing, but they have to start talking to each other. The police department already has an impression of what they are faced with when they see Black people. If you have five Black people standing on the corner talking, Police come by and they think something bad is going to happen. If they see five White people standing on the corner, they think nothing of it. That has got to change.

NOJ: It’s unfortunate but historical experience can sometimes create stereotypes that can be dangerously wrong. What has happened before is hard to erase from people’s minds and once established it is hard to break impressions and habits.

RD: Well I call it (being) emotionally attached. That is why some people are still singing the “Star Spangled Banner,” where so much of that is not true. They are singing “the home of the brave and the land of the free.”  People are singing that with fervor. Everybody is not free, but they continue to sing it.

NOJ : There is a national pride and sometimes people wrap themselves around the flag for the wrong reasons, but I would prefer that people believe in their country than not. Sometimes that belief is not validated by actions. There will always be things that are wrong in this country, but do you just stop people from showing some amount of patriotism?

RD: Well I am not a patriot. I am not a patriot because the country does not look at me in a way that they look at (White people.)  An American is not me; an American is a White person. When you talk about a Black person they are treated different. …I will be an American when I am treated like an American. But that …”land of the free and home of the brave,” wait a minute, let’s really look at the truth with intelligence, to see if it is true where we can continue to tout those things. I don’t consider myself an American, because I am not treated like a White person, an American is a White person.

NOJ: If you are not an American than what do you feel you are?

RD: I am an African-American misplaced in a land that does not accept me on the basis of my race.

NOJ: Well that is upsetting to me as a person who would hope by this time we have made our way to acceptance and inclusion and have made more progress than that.

RD: Well there should be more people like you who exercise that (sentiment.)  If a Black kid in school if he does something wrong they suspend him and take him to the Principal’s office. If a White kid does the same thing they just slap him on his wrist. So it is not a fair representation of saying we treat everybody with equal respect. Did you see the show Democracy Now. You should go to www.democracynow.org and look for the edition for August 19, 2014 and you will see a man named John Powell. He will explain this so well. He elaborates very elegantly on what I just told you.

NOJ:I’d be interested in knowing as a Black man in this country who has been around for many decades, what do you think of the current President and how effective he has been?

RD: I don’t get into politics that much. I know he is in a position that is very sensitive because he has to speak for White and Black people. He can’t show favor for one or the other and he is somebody who is in that position. It is not the Office of Dignity that is going to change anything.  He could be the President of the World; it is the individual person, walk around everyday life person who is the one subjected to this and the only one who can change it. 

NOJ: With all the evil that seems to be cropping up all over the World. Do you believe music and specifically jazz music can be an answer to some of the problems that we have in communicating with each other across sectarian, racial and ethnic lines? Do you see music as a vehicle that can bridge this gap?

RD: Basically speaking, no. There has been a lot of jazz recorded, there have been a lot of protest songs recorded talking about race, but have things changed? You might get a few converts, because of what you are saying, but not enough to make an overall general big change. It won’t come from one entity; it has to come from the heart of the person.  Even with the laws that they they have in place, that doesn’t change anything, it has to come from the heart of the person. I have many White associates who would say the same things that I just said who are making a difference, and (they are) mostly females!

NOJ:  How does that heart get changed, how do you think that change can come about? Is activism the answer?

RD: First you have to be educated to a high level of education. I have tons of books in my house, most of them written by White people, who are anti-racist. I go to conferences where all these people gather together and try to discuss these things and then take it back to their homes and try to promote an attitude. Some of the teachers, who are white and want to go to these conferences, they ask their administrators for the money to go and some administrators will say that  is a good thing we will give you the money and some say  what is the use of all that? It’s been like that for four or five hundred years.

NOJ: Do you think that the races will eventually undergo miscegenation to the point that it doesn't really matter anymore?

RD: it’s happening now. The minorities that they talked about in the last decade are no longer the minorities; they are the majority in some cases. People don’t use that word minority anymore because there is more Hispanic growth that is making them change. That is frightening some White people because they see themselves as not the majority anymore. The whole thing is a transformation of attitudes and that takes a long haul.

NOJ: So the answer is time. Time equalizes everything.

RD: Well used time. See, the education system is racist, the prison system is racist, the judicial courts are racist, the Religions are racist, so you have a whole system of institutionalized racism that has to be readdressed and reassessed. There are more Black people in jail then Whites. There are teachers who don’t regard their Black students as well as they regard their White students. So the whole thing has capitalized on organized institutional racism.

NOJ: Do you think that if there was more economic equality and opportunity in the country that the differences in the races wouldn't be as exacerbated?

RD: Well economics is a good part of the problem, because it gets to be classicism not racism. How many Black people are making the same amount of money that an ordinary White person is making? I must say that impoverished people are just not Black people either; there are many White people that are very impoverished. But their skin color gives them an advantage, even their names gives them an advantage. You see many violations on the scene where racism crosses over to classicism. A middle class White teacher teaching Black kids-first of all she is afraid of them, she is not going to hang out with them, accept anything that they say as worth anything, she won’t even call on them when they raise their hands ( In class).

NOJ: How-if you have a young White, woman teacher, who is working in a predominantly Black school, and she fears for herself and her safety- how do you overcome that embedded fear?

RD: First of all that is a lot to overcome, because (in many cases) all of her life she was never subjected to knowing about a culture other than her own. So she was involved with people who look like her, think like her, act like her and she has, what you might call, a shell around her existence in relation to other people. Even when college students come here from neighboring towns around Madison, some of them have never been around people of color. So they come in here with their naiveté and their non-exposure, looking at Black people and they are afraid of them and consequently they react to them as if they are their enemies. I will give you an example; a White woman gets on the elevator at the University, the elevator stops, and a Black man gets into the elevator and she starts screaming. The police come and they say “What has he done to you, mam?” and she says “He startled me.”

NOJ: That is just sad.

RD: Well it shows that her experience with a person of another color is fear. She heard they were going to do something to her. A White woman worked for me for three years at the campus. One day she came to my office and started crying. I said “What’s wrong with you?” She said “Well my mother told me that if I was ever going to be in a small room with a Black person I would be raped.”  Now this woman had been working with me for three years and all that time I would give her work and we would be in a small room. Now for all that time she struggled thinking, “He is going to rape me one of these days,” and she wanted to tell her mother that she had scarred her mind with this concept. That is what it is; the parents perpetuate a racist attitude. I have seen White women clutch their purses when I go near them, or standing in line behind them, they will clutch their purses.

NOJ:I guess it is hard to relate to this as a White person. 

RD: We just don’t know each other. I live in a very plush house; it is on the South Side of Madison, lakefront and I am the only Black person in this neighborhood. Now, there are White teachers in the public (school) system in a town that is only ten minutes away from here, that will not go into the supermarket that I go into, because they are afraid. My girlfriend is White and I asked her, when she goes into this market how many people does she see that are Black? She says “maybe about three.”  It was all White people that went to this store. So these teachers perpetuate racism by telling their friends “don’t go onto the South Side of Madison because something will happen to you.” I live on the South Side. I have been here since 1987, but they are afraid to go and they have never even been here.

An Administrator from the University, when they built a new building on the dividing line between North and South (Madison), she asked me “What should I do?” I knew what she was implying; now she was going to be going to work on the South side. I said Get your laptop and your chair with wheels on it and roll on down to the South Side with it.”

Things are changing on the South Side now because gentrification is coming in. They are building a lot of plush apartment buildings and other things. Then those White people will feel better about coming on the South Side, because more people that look like them are coming. The Black people in the neighborhood, some of them will have to move out, because they can’t afford it anymore. It is all around me where I am living. Now they have a Dunkin’ Donuts here… and tall buildings and hospitals, it’s gentrification and it will change the attitude of people being afraid to come here. I have never been to my neighborhood supermarket where I see more Black people than White people, but people who don’t live here think there are only Black people going in there.

NOJ: I hope things will change and I would like to believe that we are better than that and strive to be better and be open.  I agree with you that it has to start with us. It has to start with us teaching inclusion to our children and then they doing the same with their children.

RD: I always say, you know how people put pictures up on their refrigerator? Well put some Black people up there. (Laughter)


NOJ:  I really appreciate your time Richard. I am sure the readers will enjoy the conversation. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Philosophy of the Spiritual Part Two of an Interview with the Bassist Richard Davis



Even if you are not a jazz fan, you have undoubtedly heard the deep, warm sound of Richard Davis' bass.
In the late sixties and into the seventies he worked as an in demand studio musician and was featured on landmark albums by some of the most identifiable artists of the time. He was on at least three albums by pop diva Barbara Streisand including My Name is Barbara (1965) and Color Me Barbara (1966). He was the bassist on Van Morrison's stream of consciousness album Astral Weeks (1968), he made an appearance on Paul Simon's There Goes Rhyming Simon (1973) and worked on three of Janis Ian's albums Stars ( 1974), Between the Lines (1975) and Aftertones (1976). He was the probing bottom sound on Bruce Springsteen's "Meeting Across the River" from Born to Run (1975). How many Bill Evans fans recall him as one of two bassists on the meeting of Stan Getz & Bill Evans from 1973? He worked with the jazz singers Sarah Vaughan(with whom he toured and recorded with  on at least six of her albums), Chris Connor, Joe Williams and Etta Jones.Perhaps Davis' most impressive work was as a crucial contributing member of groups led by the more progressive musicians of the time including Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill , Sun Ra, Elvin Jones and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Davis's bass was a sought after sound and he worked with a veritable who's who of  saxophonists
including Ben Webster, Lucky Thompson, Sonny Stitt, Phil Woods, Joe Henderson, Lou Donaldson, Sam Rivers, Clifford Jordan, the aforementioned Dolphy and Kirk and the altoist/arranger Oliver Nelson to name just a few. His only regret is not getting to play with John Coltrane or Theolonius Monk, although Coltrane showed some interest in playing with him, but his friend Jimmy Garrison was already playing bass in the saxophonist's later quartet.

If that wasn't enough the classically trained bassist played in symphonic orchestras under the direction of Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein among others.


In this part two of my three part interview with Mr. Davis we explore the lineage and future of the bass in jazz,  his career, the people he played with, his take on the classical bass and his impressions about teaching at the University of Wisconsin where he has been a professor of classical bass since 1977. 


NOJ: To continue where we left off , in the pantheon of jazz bass players, is this list a fair chronology of who you think evolved the bass through their own innovations, from where it was in the early 1900's to where it is today? I’m thinking of Page, Stewart, Blanton, Pettiford, Brown, LaFaro , Chambers, Ron Carter and yourself ? After that then where is it going.


RD: I agree with what you said as far as the lineage

NOJ: And then who? Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten etc.

RD: Victor Wooten, Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller, those guys are playing crazy stuff. Don’t leave out Jaco Pastorious.

Jaco Pastorius
NOJ: Oh no, your right Jaco definitely deserves to be in there. They are all so technically proficient and play with tremendous speed, but sometimes I feel like they lack the poignancy that guys like you bring to the bass. Can there be a joining of this high speed proficiency with corresponding poignancy?

RD: I see. Well I’d rather leave that question alone.

NOJ: Let’s go back to your own musical chronology. You started in Chicago and you were playing with the great Ahmad Jamal, when you were switched spots with another bass player and summoned to New York to play with Don Shirley in 1952 is that right?

RD: That is right.

NOJ: I read somewhere that Shirley also studied psychology and that he did in the field experiments with his audience, checking to see if his use of certain chord patterns or notes could elicit certain responses. Did you experience that with him?
Don Shirley Tonal Expressions 1955
From the Album liner notes on Don Shirley's Tonal Expressions 1955 by Al "JazzBo" Collins:

"One of  the favored standards, "My Funny Valentine" receives especially good interpretation by Don Shirley with fine bowing by Richard Davis. He conveys more of the Pagliacci tragedy of this melody than we have ever heard before. The beauty and the sadness are real. The tonal effects are particularly effective here with the bowing laying a nice background for the piano notes to be dropped upon."

RD: This is the first time I am hearing about this.

NOJ: I read about Shirley and he apparently studied psychology and was interested in the effects of certain musical chords on people. I was wondering if you could shed some light on this information from firsthand experience?

RD: I have no idea about that.

NOJ: I thought it was coincidental that you played with Shirley and you also mentioned playing with Sunny Blount or Sun Ra, as he was later called. You told a very funny story about playing with him one time at a Calmut City burlesque house. He told you he could make a drunk in the audience stand up and listen just by playing certain chords and then it proceeded to do just that. It is sort of coincidental  or where these guys connected?

RD: I saw Sun Ra do this but I never saw Shirley do anything like this. Sun Ra could do anything.

NOJ: Pretty wild. What was the most impressive thing about Sun Ra?

RD; Highly spiritual, a world of wisdom and just a fantastic musician.
            
NOJ: Do you think his music was too far out there for most people to accept?

Sonny Blount aka Sun Ra
RD:  No. He did in and out. He did far out and far in.


NOJ: Did Don Shirley, who apparently composed classical pieces, have any influence on you pursuing classical bass?

RD: No he did not have any influence on me, and I don’t know about his composing classical pieces. He approached whatever pieces he was playing, standards, in you might call it a euro-classical manner.I don’t know anything about his composing. I stayed with him for three years. I don’t think he had any influence on my playing, I just got an opportunity to play these bass lines.

NOJ: Which classical Bassist did you most admire and why?

RD: Well the first bassist I heard on a recording was the conductor of the Boston Symphony, his name  was Serge Koussevitzky. Fifteen years after he stopped playing the bass, they asked him to do a recording. He consented to do the recording and I heard about it in a magazine and I heard the recording and he plays three of his own compositions.


NOJ: You have always maintained a dual identity as both a jazz and a classical player. Do you think had the opportunities been more forthcoming you would have preferred to have played Euro based classical music for a profession?

RD: No I would have preferred to play jazz, but I can play both and that is why I’m teaching now because I teach both.

NOJ: It’s pretty heartwarming to hear how well your students appreciate your teaching and mentoring them at the University of Wisconsin where you teach.

RD: Where did you see that?

NOJ: It’s pretty amazing what you can get off the internet if you look, Richard.

RD: I developed a super program for young bassists around the country. The Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists.


NOJ: That is pretty great. When you left Don Shirley you went to the University of Sarah Vaughan. How was it different playing for Ms. Vaughan?

RD: I had some intermittent gigs before that. I worked with Charlie Ventura for a while and then the Sauter- Finnegan Band. Just some gigs around New York and then I got the call to work with Sarah Vaughan

NOJ: Now how did you get the gig to work with Sarah?

RD: I don’t quite know, but I think the drummer Roy Haynes might have had something to do with that. I’ve always wanted to ask him that question, but I never remember to ask him, because he used to watch me play with Ahmad Jamal. When he was in Chicago with Sarah Vaughan he would hang out. I remember sitting at the bar with him when he would come out. So I imagine that is my connection with Sarah Vaughan was through him.

NOJ: what was the most impressive thing about Ms Vaughn as a musician that you learned playing with her for five years?

RD: First of all she had a keen sense of harmony. She had a keen sense of improvisational skills on the harmony and she had a piano player , Jimmy Jones, who knew how to play expressive harmony behind her.

NOJ The guitarist Jack Wilkins told me that accompanying a singer is more about dynamics and pace than playing instrumentally with a band. I have seen some film of you playing with Sarah and you look happy as hell. Did you find playing with Vaughan a little restrictive after a while?


RD: Well it’s very true. With her you felt very comfortable and free and relaxed because that is what she looked for. It’s fine until I feel the need to move on.  I just felt eventually it was time to move on to do other things, because I couldn’t do it with her, it wasn’t that kind of a group.

NOJ: Well I have listened to some of your later recordings and you certainly have done some interesting and different things with some cutting edge people. You were in New York and met Eric Dolphy on a subway platform.  He asked you if you were playing Saturday and that was the beginning of a beautiful partnership. What was so special about Eric and why do you think his music was so difficult for the mainstream at the time?

RD: Why it was good for me is that he was playing things that I could hear in my ear. That is what I was looking for when I got off the road with Sarah Vaughan. I was looking for something that could satisfy my urge to play with different chordal structures, different interpretations and he was the answer. He was the answer.

NOJ:  You guys played together on Out to Lunch. In some respects your association with Eric was like a parallel to the late Charlie Haden’s association with Ornette Coleman. He was doing   The Shape of Jazz to Come during that period and you guys were doing Out to Lunch. What was going on with the music at this time? It was like exploding in a different direction.

RD: It sure was. People still ask me about that recording.


NOJ: Not that music needs to be categorized, but what was going on at that time to have moved the music in this direction?  Were the musicians just searching for something different?

RD: Well it could be on parallel with society at that time. Society was looking for something different civil rights, freedom. James Brown was singing a lot of things about “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and this thing was not militant it was about love.

NOJ: It was a little radical.

RD: Some of the people that heard it like the militant Black Panthers heard in a different way.  Eric was all about love. Eric Dolphy was all about love and so was James Brown. Eric was all about love. James Brown was all about love. It was the sixties.
Eric Dolphy
NOJ: In that group you also had Tony Williams on drums, Freddie Hubbard on Trumpet and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes? What was it like to play with these guys especially young Williams?


RD: Like a dream come true.

NOJ: Did everyone look to Eric as a leader or was it a more of cooperative effort?

RD: Well to be honest with you going back fifty years or so it is difficult to go back and see that day, it is not easy.

NOJ: Was Eric a commanding presence?

RD: No he was just like one of the guts. Nothing like I’m the leader or like that you know. It was his music. Most combo situations work as a cooperative situation.

NOJ: You also played with Eric at the Five Spot Residency with Mal Waldron on piano, Booker Ervin on trumpet and Ed Blackwell on drums. How was this group different than the one that recorded for Blue Note?
RD: I don’t even recall Booker Ervin being on that job.

NOJ: You were also an instrumental part of Andrew Hill’s “Point of Departure” recording in 1964 with Eric, Tony Williams, Kenny Dorham and Joe Henderson. How was Hill’s music different from Dolphy’s previous outings?


RD: When I played with him I didn’t really realize that Andrew was a genius at the time, he was just another musician. As a leader Andrew had no leadership ego. He would just pass out the music and you would play it, no whipping you into shape or anything like that.

NOJ: What was different about his approach?

RD: I don’t think he had an approach; he just left you alone to do what you had to do.

NOJ: You went from touring Europe with Sarah Vaughan in 1958 where the music was all standrads  to ten years later veritably leading a  very loose almost wing it session on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album which was an experiment in stream of consciousness lyrics and unstructured music. Did you take what Morrison was doing at the time seriously or did you think it was just another gig?

RD: The A&R people that produced that session were people that I had worked with for a long time. They just told me that they were having somebody coming in from Ireland or Scotland or somewhere and I had to get together a group to do their thing.

NOJ: Were you expected to lead the musicians in the studio?

RD: I might have been expected to get the musicians together, but like I said before no body had to lead these guys. We weren't even introduced to Van Morrison. He came in sat in the booth and started to sing.

NOJ:  You also did some studio work for other very famous pop/rock albums of the ear. You played on important albums by Janis Ian and Laura Nyro, Barbara Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen.  Where you specifically requested to play bass by these artists?

RD: Laura Nyro and Janis Ian must have asked for me. (For Streisand)I was the bass player for arranger/conductor Peter Matz, who arranged her first four or six albums, and he liked my bass. Bruce Springsteen had heard my bass on the Van Morrison album and he said he wanted that bass player on his album ( Davis played bass on “Meeting Across the River” from Springsteen’s Born to Run album with trumpeter Randy Brecker).


NOJ: You also played in symphony orchestras conducted by Gunther Schuller, Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein to name a few. When you play classical bass is there any room for artistic freedom or is the music rigidly player?

RD: Just for your artistry on the instrument, but you are really interpreting, taking your direction from the conductor. You have a hundred people assembled so you take direction from the conductor who puts you into focus. You have no individuality.

NOJ: You have been an educator at University of Wisconsin in Madison since 1977. What made you leave New York?

RD: I just decided that I wanted to start teaching some younger people what I had learned.

NOJ: How did you find Wisconsin?

RD: Cold.( Laughing)

NOJ: Were they receptive to you as a black educator in a relatively predominantly white state?

RD: Wisconsin has a reputation for being a racial state. I think eventually some people feared me because I was black. They thought I was aloof, but I had to protect myself.. .Wisconsin is very racist.

NOJ: I take it you were a bit of a pioneer there?

RD: What do mean by a pioneer?

NOJ: Somebody that went ahead of other people and blazed the way. I take it by now there is much more diversity and integration in the school system?

RD: It’s still the same, nothing has changed.

NOJ: Well, that’s disheartening.

RD: I’m still working on diversity. I have some allies. I have lots of allies and I have a lot of people who don’t even realize that it exists there.
Educator Professor Davis a U of W
NOJ: Has affirmative action helped Wisconsin integrate more people of color into the educational system?


RD: When you look at the numbers there is still three percent Black and 8 % people of color and I don’t know what they are doing about that.

NOJ: You are an avid horseman your whole life. How does the rhythm of riding relate to the rhythms of music?

RD: Well rhythm, tempo and pacing is part of riding the horse. You have rhythm in the horse, there is tempo in a horse and a certain gait of space and how you are going to cover that space , especially when you are jumping with a horse. I was just watching some old video when you called.

NOJ You have been on over three thousand recordings in almost all genres of music. Is there a particular soft spot in your heart for any particular type of music?

RD: Jazz is closest to my heart.

NOJ: Your last album was in 2008. What album are you most proud of and why?

Rd: I guess the album I am most proud of was Philosophy of the Spiritual ( from 1971). The way that Bill Lee assembled that, he made the arrangements and he always thought I had a specific bow technique and he utilized that and I had a chance to play all those beautiful melodies, I remember "Dear Old Stockholm," Bill saw that and he emphasized that and made the arrangements for that.

NOJ: In the nineteen sixties do you think you took a militant stance against racism?

RD: No I didn't take a militant stance, because militancy defeats the purpose. I didn't take any particular stance, I just thought it was something that I didn't like. I didn't go parading around.

NOJ: In the jazz music world what white musicians did you feel were blind to color?

RD: Benny Goodman was one, Stan Getz was one, Dave Brubeck was one. Of course Duke Ellington was like a social worker.

NOJ:  As an active educator you must be current on the contemporary bass players out there. Does anyone in particular seem to be holding the mantle of jazz bass a little bit higher?

RD: Yeah, Christian McBride, Kenny Davis and I can’t think of anyone else right now, oh Esperanza Spalding.

NOJ: There are more and more women playing bass these days. Besides Esperanza there is Linda Oh, Tal Wilkenfeld,  Iris Ornig and Meshell Ndegeocello to name a few.

RD: That’s good!
Bassist Esperanza Spalding

NOJ:  I am sure you have taught some really incredible female bass players. With the continuously shrinking audiences for both jazz and classical music ,do you think it is going to be able to survive in this age where everything is so quickly changing?

RD: I certainly hope it survives, but who is to know? I don’t know.

NOJ: With such a paucity of venues for upcoming musicians to play at, what is your advice for those musicians who want to make the music their life?

RD: Well my teacher told me to get a degree in education. If the gigs aren't there you can always teach.


To read part one of this interview click here. Part three of this interview will be more on Mr. Davis' views on education and race relations in this country.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Philosophy of the Spiritual an Interview with Bassist Richard Davis Part 1 of 3


Richard Davis photo by John Abbott
The rich and  resonant sound of Richard Davis' bass has been around for the better part of sixty years. Now at age eighty four he spends most of his time as an educator of euro-classical bass at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he had been teaching since he left New York back in 1977. He was at the epicenter of the movement from bebop to hard bop and onto free jazz explorations that occurred throughout the sixties and into the seventies. His discography spans major work with Sarah Vaughan, Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, Elvin Jones and Jaki Byard to name a few and  his in demand studio work has been an essential part of seminal works by  mainstream artists like Laura Nyro, Janis Ian, Barbara Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Van Morrison. It was a rare treat to spend two sessions speaking to Mr. Davis via telephone from his home in Madison, Wisconsin on August 8th and again on August 20th of this year.

Our conversations discussed our mutual fascination with life of the Ellington bassist Jimmie Blanton, Davis'
career and the people he played with in both the jazz and classical bass worlds, his recollections of some of his predecessors on the bass, his take on the future, his experiences as an educator, his social activism and a lengthy discussion on his perspective on race in this country. 


NOJ: First let me say thank you for taking out the time to speak with me. I have been a fan of your music ever since I listened to your album “Philosophy of the Spiritual” when I was in my early twenties.

RD: You were in your early twenties when you heard it?

NOJ: Yes. It was very profound for me. I had never heard a bass being bowed like that in the jazz format. I came to really love jazz after that and that album dove me into it deeper and deeper. I later came to know about arco bass playing by people like Blanton and Pettiford and others.  I especially was moved by your rendition of “Dear Old Stockholm,” which you did so heart wrenchingly well. This was my first exposure to the bass as a solo instrument of such great empathetic power. It was very moving.

RD: Thank you so much.


NOJ: I guess our communication started with me sending you my essay on the Duke Ellington bassist Jimmie Blanton. You responded kindly and here we are.

RD: Oh Yeah.

NOJ: I was really intrigued by Blanton’s life. I heard you on an interview with Ben Sidran from 2008 that you had Blanton’s bass at the University( of Wisconsin, Madison). How did you get it and is it still there and is it still with you and is it still being used?

RD; See, the bass player who took that bass over after Blanton, and he also played with Duke Ellington, was his cousin Wendell Marshall. He had the bass .So when he was no longer playing I asked him if I could at least take care of it. I didn’t want to buy it, because it had been handled, but I said, I’d like to take care of it.  When he divorced his wife he had left it at home in his basement and I wanted to protect it and he agreed.  I kept it for many, many years, but he finally took it back. Wendel died but one of the student/ teachers in my foundation found the bass, found it somewhere and knows where it is.

NOJ: Interesting. When I did research for my Blanton essay, I found some references to the fact that he may have started out playing in the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra with a three stringed bass. Do you know anything about that?

RD: That’s questionable, because some people said that he recorded with Jeter-Pillars, but it has been found out that he did not.  One of my students, who did a lot of research, found out that he never recorded with that band.  I know from his sister, (Gertrude Blanton) who I interviewed before she died- it was about a four hour recorded interview- she said that when he got the job with Duke Ellington he had to get a bigger bass. She didn’t say anything about a three stringed bass, but just that he needed a bigger bass.

Jimmie Blanton
NOJ: When I did my research on Blanton, I found the information to be pretty sparse. One interview that I found, an oral history with drummer Lee Young, who was Lester Young’s brother,  was particularly interesting. I was very surprised to find out that as Young recounted, Jimmie and Nat King Cole and himself were “running” buddies in Los Angeles, California.

RD: They were?

NOJ: Yeah, that’s what Lee Young told an interviewer.

RD: Well, see one of his (Blanton’s)  good friends was Ben Webster in that band. Illinois Jacquet told me a story that when he first saw Blanton he was at jam session and he had heard so much about him that he was nervous to go into it. I was sitting right next to him when he told me that story. Wendell told me he  (Blanton) was headed toward developing some new harmonies that were in his head.
There is a guy… from somewhere in Europe who is doing his thesis on Blanton right now. He called on my former student, Peter Dominguez who is a bass professor at Oberlin, and he is talking to me through a guy named Lewis Porter, who wrote the book on Coltrane. So the research is still going on. I am planning on giving him, if it works out that way, the tapes I have when I interviewed Gertrude Blanton.

NOJ: I’d love to hear that interview.

RD: I caught up with her in Detroit before she died.

NOJ: What year was that?

RD:  I don’t remember but it was a long time ago.

NOJ: I don‘t know what you thought about the conclusions or speculations in my essay? I was very surprised to find that Blanton had probably played with Charlie Christian at least one time in his short career.  The fact that they both died so young, Blanton was 23 and Christian was 25 within five months of each other from TB, you have to wonder if one may have contracted it from the other?  It’s a mysterious coincidence considering they both revolutionized their respective instruments and both died of the same disease at the same time don’t you think?
Charlie Christian
RD:  U huh. Even when I started playing in 1945, my mother warned me against fast women and drinking.
TB was running rampant at that time.

NOJ: Let’s get back to you. You were born in Chicago 1930 and you were part of a family singing trio is that right?

RD: That was like when I was a kid.

NOJ: Do you still sing?

RD: I wouldn’t say I sing. It is something we just did around the house. We did try out for an amateur hour show called Major Bowes. We didn’t make it but we did it. My cousin, who influenced me to play the bass, used to coach us in singing. It was just something we did as kids.

NOJ: What was the very first concert that you attended that really had an influence on you.

RD: Well see, you know you would go to the neighborhood theater and see the bands on stage, that was before television took over. The Regal (Theater) was about four blocks from my house, (and I would try to go there) anytime they had a stage show and they had shows there very, very often.

NOJ: Was there any specific concert or performance that blew you away?

RD:  I can’t remember any specific concert, but the whole scenario blew me away because there you were listening to these live musicians playing and singing. I was impressed with the bass player, because he was spinning his bass around. It was quite a thing to see.

NOJ: It was very showman- like.

RD: Oh yeah, and they all had showman-like qualities.

NOJ: Well it was more than just music it was entertainment, right?

RD: It sure was. I was very impressed.

NOJ: You have stated in past interviews that your experience with Walter Dyett   your musical director at the famed Dusable High School music program, was instrumental in both your musical and personal development. Can you explain how he inspired you?

Walter Dyett 
RD: Well first off he was a highly spiritual person and a very skillful musician in different venues like jazz and classical. Did you ever hear of the Erskine-Tate band? He played in that band, he played banjo in that band. He was spiritual, he was a Rosicrucian and I learned a lot of things just being around him.

NOJ: Was he religiously spiritual or just secularly spiritual?

RD: He was a Rosicrucian. I understand George Washington was too. Have you heard it?

George Washington our Rosicrucian President
NOJ: I am not that familiar with that following, no. I think they were somehow related to the Masons.


RD: I am not that familiar with it either, but I know he did (practice) it. He was very inspirational with anybody whom he taught.

NOJ: Did he push you to achieve what you were looking to achieve because he saw in you something that was a natural talent?

RD: Yes. He had me at his house once a week…studying theory and harmony. I worked with his professional band. He told me what school to go to, what college to go to. I went to the same college he went to, VanderCook College of Music, and when I went there,( I understood) everything they were saying because I had heard it before… he was a graduate of that school. I was way ahead.

NOJ:  I have read that you pursued the bass because you were shy as a youngster and it was a bit of a background instrument that you felt you could hide behind it, and also because you had a natural affinity for the sound of the bass from a very early age. Can you elaborate how this developed into such a lifelong passion?

RD: Well I guess you just said it all there. I don’t think I can elaborate on that. (Laughing)

NOJ: Well I did read some of your previous interviews, but I wouldn’t want to put words into your mouth.

RD: Yeah, I think you have done a good job with wherever you have gotten that from.

NOJ: Well some of this material came from several sources, but I would like to hear it from the horse’s mouth.

RD:  That’s a good idea.

NOJ: And I hear you’re a horseman?

RD: That’s for sure. I been a horseman since I was nine and I only stopped in 1987.

NOJ: That became a passion too, right?

RD: It was definitely a passion. I did everything imaginable with horses. I only stopped when I moved into the city here (Madison, Wisconsin), because I no longer had a place to keep the horses.

Richard Davis training one of his horses
NOJ:  Getting back to your musical experiences, who was the very first bass player that you saw perform live that you were really impressed with, and when was that?


RD: That I heard?  Well see, at fifteen years of age, when I started playing the bass, there was a student in high school with me named Karl Byrom .I was very impressed when he played. He and I became  friendly and consequently there were all these other (jazz)bass players he knew about.

NOJ: So he introduced you to them?

RD: Yeah he had their recordings. Oscar Pettiford, Jimmie Blanton, Slam Stewart, Milt Hinton all these guys.

NOJ: So let me ask you about some of these guys and as one of the great jazz bass players, I would love to get your impromptu take on them as bass players.
Let’s start with Walter Page?
 Bassist  Walter Page
RD: Walter Page to me was like the Rock of Gibraltar with the walking bass line. He was solid, he had a big sound. He was in a rhythm section that they called the “All American Rhythm Section,” he and Jo Jones, Freddie Green and Count Basie. I was not impressed with any of his particular skills. He didn’t solo at all, as far as I know, but he was inspiring.


NOJ: I would say maybe Blanton next?

RD: Yes, Blanton next.

NOJ: And how did he change the way the bass was being played?

RD:  First, he was soloing and he was bowing and he would come out in front of the band and play a duet with Duke Ellington. I heard him and I said boy I’m impressed. My teacher who was a European classical teacher from the Chicago Symphony had his record too, what he did with Duke.

NOJ: Wasn’t Slam Stewart doing stuff like that at the same time?

RD: Oh I can’t give you a date, but I am sure he was.
Bassist LeRoy "Slam" Stewart
NOJ: In that same interview done with Lester Young’s brother, drummer Lee Young, Lee recalled that Slam Stewart and Jimmie Blanton once had a cutting session. Lester, who was a big Slam Stewart fan, thought he was the tops and was rooting for Stewart, but after he heard Blanton at that session he became a convert.


RD: Oh yeah. I’d wish I could have heard Blanton in a jam session playing with the bow. That was never recorded.

NOJ: What about Milt Hinton?
Bassist Milt Hinton
RD: Well Milt Hinton was an exceptional player playing on both classical and jazz. He did a solo album. I think it was called Ebony Silhouette, he bowed on it. I wish I could find that record. He bowed the melody I know I heard it. I think that was the name of it Ebony Silhouette.


NOJ: What about Oscar (Pettiford)?

RD: Well now you’re talking about (laughing) some sort of monster there man. Did you ever hear him play on Swamp Fire with Duke Ellington?

NOJ: Yeah, he used to play cello too right?
Bassist and Cellist Oscar Pettiford with Duke Ellington
RD: Yeah. He was playing a baseball game and fell down and broke his arm and he picked up the cello as something that put less pressure on it. Oscar Pettiford was a natural and his solos were swinging.


NOJ: What is the difference in your mind between Blanton and Pettiford?

RD: Two different people with two different ideas on how to solo. Pettiford was maybe as good as Blanton, I am not really sure about that, but Blanton was in the world’s eye before Pettiford. I met Oscar, I talked to him a lot. Oh yeah, I met him in New York, He was very egotistical. I was on the (Ellington) bus when they were getting ready to leave, because I knew somebody (in the band). Pettiford said ”I don’t need him (referring to Duke) , he needs me.”  (Laughing) I said to myself wow!
One time, I was hanging out with Wendell (Marshall, Ellington’s regular bass player at the time)  we were both hanging out with Pettiford and Pettiford said to me and Wendell  ”Why don’t you guys come around to this rehearsal  I got so you can learn how to play the bass.” (Laughing) When he played on that record he did Swamp Fire, I was impressed. That record, I think I have got it on the old vinyl.

NOJ: That’s got to be great. What about a guy like Tommy Potter?

RD: Tommy Potter was a good bassist. He was one of the guys in bebop who could keep those tempos. I never really saw him as a soloist. See soloists were taking over from the guys that were just walking, and Tommy Potter and Curley Russell were responsible for doing that (walking) stuff. I remember all those guys. When I met Curley Russell, someone had taken me backstage where he was working to meet him and he told the guy “… don’t tell him to make a career out of music.” (Laughing)He was protecting me.
Bassist Curley Russell
NOJ:  What about Ray Brown?

RD: Oh yeah he was a monster, man. He was out there with all of them.
Bassist Ray Brown
NOJ: How do these guys differ from each other in your mind?


RD: Well they are different spirits of different times in jazz performance. You might say that Ray Brown came up during the bebop era. Now the guy that started playing bebop on the bass was Oscar Pettiford. That is the way I see it.  There is another bass player back in those days… he was with Stan Kenton.

NOJ: How about Israel Crosby was he around then?

Bassist Israel Crosby
RD: Oh man Israel; he was one of these young guys that started. Israel Crosby was ooh. I remember him in Chicago. Yeah, good bassist.

NOJ: And (George)Duvivier?

RD: There is another one. He was known for his beat and his precision and intonation.

NOJ: Yeah he has great intonation.

RD: Yes sir!

NOJ:  How about Red Mitchell?
Bassist Red Mitchell

RD: Now there was a phenomenal player too.

NOJ: He played with a different tuning didn’t he?

RD: I think he did.

NOJ: I loved his work with Hampton Hawes trio. They just cooked. I really liked the way Red played.

RD:  I met him much later.

NOJ: Then of course there was Mingus, who was in his own world.
Bassist and Composer Charles Mingus
RD: Yeah he was in his own world all right.

NOJ:  (Laughing) Brilliant, but sort of difficult.

RD: He made sure of that.

NOJ: What about a guy like Scott LaFaro, who everybody says was a pivotal point on the bass?

Bassist Scott LaFaro
RD: He was definitely a pivotal point on the bass.

NOJ: And why was that?

RD: He just played high on the register and played fast and with alternate fingering. He played out of time. He was basically not just keeping the beat. You know Ray Brown said the first guy that he heard who was doing that stuff was me.

NOJ: You?


RD: That’s what Ray Brown said.




Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Regina Carter brings her Southern Comfort to the Jazz Standard August 16, 2014

Marvin Sewell, Regina Carter, Chris Lightcap and Will Holshouser
Photo by Ralph A. Miriello

On Saturday August 16, 2014 the violinist Regina Carter brought some Southern Comfort to the New York’s Jazz Standard. It was apropos to be enjoying the Standard’s sumptuous Blue Smoke Barbeque cuisine prior to the first set of Ms. Carter’s delicious treatment of American roots music. It was almost the perfect pairing for an all-American  evening of fine food and even finer music.

Ms. Carter, who is small in stature but commanding in the presence of her violin, was joined by an accomplished group of like-minded musicians.  Anchored by the rhythm section of Chris Lightcap on acoustic bass and Alvester Garnett on drums, the group included two musicians Marvin Sewell on guitars and Will Holshouser on accordion, who seemed to have an invisible tether to Ms. Carter’s musical mind.


The music was from Ms. Carter’s recent cd Southern Comfort, a musical experience which was born out of the violinist’s interest in discovering the music that existed during her father and grandfather’s time. The research took her to the coal mines of Alabama where her grandfather originally worked. The music of the time was annealed from the varied experiences of the workers who came from many disparate European and African backgrounds. It was the discovery of the field recordings from these times, a few of which Ms. Carter shared on stage from a recorder stored on her phone, that made the music so compelling. This was Americana music at its best, work and play music that sustained those who heard it while carrying on with their often difficult lives.

From the impressive glass slide and finger picked guitar opening by Mr. Sewell of “Miner’s Child” and the melancholic wail of Ms. Carter’s violin you knew you were in for a treat listening to music that could clutch at the tendrils of your soul. Ms. Carter has it all, precision, superb intonation and a creative spirit that makes her instrument sing like a plaintive voice. The group was marvelously intuitive in their approach to this music, which they played with a great deal of feeling and reverence.

On vibraphonist Stefon Harris’s fast paced arrangement of “Breakaway/Death Have Mercy,” drummer  Garnett played a moving Cajun-inspired rhythm that led into a stirring solo by accordionist Will Holshauser, who at times made his accordion sound like a carnival calliope.

On the Graham Parson’s tune “Hickory Wind” Mr. Sewell played glass slide on an electric Telecaster-style guitar. His technique was so flawlessly smooth that if you closed your eyes you could have easily mistaken it for a pedal-steel guitar. He lingered on long drawn out notes that hung in the air like wisps of cumulus clouds over a hot southern landscape. On this slow, sauntering tune Ms. Carter took the opportunity play with the heart wrenching poignancy that only a fiddle can elicit. Mr. Holshouser’s harmonies were magically in-sync with Ms. Carter at almost every turn. The two seem to have an empathetic connection that is magical to behold.

Ms. Carter took to the microphone to  explain her journey through her father’s genealogy, where she was DNA tested to  discover she was 73% West African and 13% Finnish. So she quipped her next record might explore Finnish music, tentatively titled “I’m Finnish-ed.”  She related visiting her father’s relative’s in the rural South during the summers of her youth. She then played a brief recording of a children’s school song that was taken from an archival collection of recordings from an all girl’s school in Alabama, titled “See See Rider.”  The song, as played by Ms Carter and her group, was particularly moving. Ms. Carter’s raspy violin repeated the refrain pointedly.  At times during her soloing you could hear glimpses of her quoting what seemed to be Bill Wither’s  soulful “Use Me”. Mr. Holshauser brilliantly complimented her sound with rich harmonies that would swell in and out in sync to the squeezing of his instrument. Mr. Garnett playing with his bare hands on his drums and Mr. Sewell and Mr Lightcap accompanied perfectly.

The group launched into a cacophony of sounds that at once seemed disparate and free. The Garnett penned song broke into the more identifiable sound of  a New Orlean’s inspired march. Mr. Garnett kept the drill step cadence superbly and Mr. Holshauser playfully soloed in a Cajun-styled mode.  Mr. Sewell had an extended solo as Ms. Carter looked on, leading to a bass solo by Mr. Lightcap. Ms. Carter soloed in a style that was reminiscent of Stuff Smith, with a dissonant dual string attack and references to “Farmer in the Dell” and other barnyard favorites sprinkled in along the way.  The song ended with a rousing and  rambunctious drum solo by the ever present Mr. Garnett, who was finally let out of his box to strut his ample chops.
    

The first set ended with the traditional hymn “I’m Going Home on the Morning Train” which was arranged and played on the album by the tasty guitarist Adam Rodgers. Mr. Sewell started the song off with a soulful bluesy guitar lead in. Mr. Holshouser’s moaning accordion sound gave the song a moving reverence, the feel of a church organ at a bible reading. Ms. Carter’s violin was particularly poignant on this hymn as her Appalachian heritage came pouring through with a sincerity that was tinged with a bit of melancholia; a combination that makes this music so moving. As Ms. Carter has said, the music comes through her, not from her, and to give it to us is a gift, as she does, demands that we accept it with open arms. For those who enjoy this kind of American roots music, played to perfection,  Southern Comfort is a must have in the same category as the late Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny’s memorable Missouri Sky.