This article originally appeared in
Richard Davis moved to Madison in 1977 to take a teaching post in the university's music department. He came here via Chicago and New York, already established as one of the world's premier bassists, comfortable with both the jazz and classical repertoire. His résumé is astounding: He has recorded with Ben Webster, Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon, Barbra Streisand, John Lennon, Chick Corea, Miles Davis, Stan Getz and Frank Sinatra; played under the batons of Igor Stravinsky, Leopold Stokowski and Leonard Bernstein; and toured extensively with Sarah Vaughan. Though living far away from the jazz capital of New York, Davis still maintains a presence there with his world-class quintet, Richard Davis & Friends.
When he first moved to Wisconsin, Davis lived on a farm in Barneveld with his wife and young son. Now he is divorced, lives in Madison, and is seeing his 18-year-old daughter off to college in Eau Claire. He is still a prolific performer -- his most recent recording, The Bassist, has just been released by Japan's King Records -- but he's also become a spokesman for diversity issues at the UW. Davis, who in 1977 shrugged off the racial makeup of the school by saying "that's geography," in 1998 issued "My Assertion on Retention," a statement detailing his commitment to improving the campus' retention of students of color.
Thoughts about race in America, as much as bass music, now sing through Davis' mind. His album is even subtitled "homage to diversity." Here's Richard Davis on music, race and his journey as a parent and teacher.
Freeman: What is your latest project?
Davis: My latest, latest project is to bring the black academic community together at the university. I'm mostly concerned about the university because that's where I work.
I want that particular body to develop so that when black faculty [are hired], they have a welcoming committee of people who they're looking forward to seeing. It would be an encouragement to help the plan that the university says its wants to recruit black faculty. I had nobody to really take me by the hand and say to me, "Here's what the academic community is all about." It took me years before I learned that my area, the strings, had meetings. After about a year, I got wind of these meetings and I said, "Hey, this is a nice idea you guys are doing. When did this all start?" They'd been doing it for 50 years! Well, I didn't know that.
Is this related to the series of afternoon coffee meetings with you I've seen publicized at the university as part of a retention project aimed at African American students?
Yes. My group is called Retention Action Project. Retention means, once the students get here, how do you activate the process of retaining them? As Seema Kapani says, when you invite people to your house, make sure you have a door that fits everybody. A giraffe can't get through a six-foot door. And an elephant can't get through a door that's only four feet wide. So, if you have prepared before they come, you will retain.
In your experience, is racism a large problem in Madison and the university?
Madison thinks it's a liberal city. I don't see that. That's why we're still talking about these issues. When I walk into a candy store at the state's Capitol and I ask to taste a piece of licorice to see if that's what I want to buy, and the women reaches in there with her bare hands to give it to me, she's letting me know she doesn't want me in there. And she waits on the next person with plastic gloves, and they're white. That's giving me a strong message. It's telling me you don't matter. And your daughter is with you, witnessing this. Every person of color knows that exists when they wake up in the morning. And it doesn't go away at night. When we talk about liberalism, to what degree are we fantasizing?
When you arrived in Madison, articles about you speculated that the UW music department was making more of a commitment to jazz education. Has that been borne out in your teaching experience?
I don't see any changes. The reason I don't see any changes is because when they established that degree program, the director of the music school told me: You've got your program now, but don't expect any help from us. In other words, there's no money issuing, and they ain't bringing more people there to teach it. And that's like saying, "I've given you a job as a chauffeur, now you go out and get a car." If jazz was going to be progressive at any establishment, it has to come out of the cellar in all people's minds. And the school is based on classical music. Not based on jazz. It's not staffed well enough to do a job comparable to other schools that are doing it.
I'm not talking just whites are against the music. Some blacks are against it too. Know why? Because they're told the music's no good by a white person. Since they wanna be like the white people, they accept it. Some places say, "Jazz is not serious music," or "I know this guy was playing jazz and then he became 'serious' so he studied classical music." Jazz is not serious? See if you can play it.
Do you think jazz is a commercially viable art form?
Jazz has been money-making to a very few who are sustaining a living off it, but it has not been like Top 40. I mean, you turn on the radio you can tell that. You turn on the TV you can tell that. Only station that has it on is BET. You see some commercials now with jazz in it, and I see Sarah Vaughan singing a commercial now, but jazz has never been of commercial value. Jazz has always been an elitist music by a chosen few people. You smile when I say that.
I smile because most art is accused of being elitist at this point in our country.
That's it! It's the first thing goes!
What about a figure like Wynton Marsalis, who has had commercial success and approaches jazz very traditionally. What do you think about the debate between conservative jazz musicians and innovators?
I say leave the musician to his art, because he's the one developing it, knows where he wants to go, envisions what he wants to do with it. Categorizing, putting names on things is what makes newspaper articles, and it gives critics something to talk about. Let the musicians play their music. All this talking about it and analyzing all that stuff, I never liked that. A lot of my students want me to analyze. Some guy called me the other day and wanted to know, "How did you construct that, and what were you thinking about?" I said, "Man, I didn't spend all that time thinking about what I wanted to do, I just did it, from the resources in my mind."
I know one thing I can say. I like the fact that Wynton Marsalis is on top now. That people are listening to him. He's a good educator and he talks. I don't think he cares what people think about him. When you said something about him going back to the old music: Hey, I'll go along with that. You know why? You can meet people playing jazz saxophone today, black and white, and you ask them, "Who invented your instrument? Who is the one that made that instrument what it is today, jazz-wise?" They've never heard the name Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young. Never. They don't know!
This happened to me just recently in Oklahoma City. I made the guy promise to call me three weeks later with the answer. He called me just Saturday and he told me all about Adolphe Sax who invented the saxophone. He told me all about Coleman Hawkins. I said, "Now did you know Coleman Hawkins' most famous solo? He didn't know that. I said, "Call me in a few weeks, I want you to sing it." And why did I do that? Because he's on top of the tree up there where the wind is blowing the nest of birds, and he has no foundation with the roots of what he's coming from.
Now, can you imagine generations of that happening? Down the road there will be nobody named Coleman Hawkins in existence. So what you do is defend your culture and the history and legacy of it. Because too much of it has been washed out already. When [Marsalis] talks about roots, going back and playing old Duke Ellington and some old King Oliver, those guys were being washed out of the history books. [Some people], they will play the Rocky theme, they will play 2001: A Space Odyssey and call it jazz! Call it jazz! So, he hears this stuff and hears it called jazz, he's not going to know about Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, King Oliver or Louis Armstrong.
When I started to play I was 15 years old, and I said, "I got to go back and find out some of this stuff." Self-motivated, I went back by reading old magazines, listening to old recordings. When I would have my lesson downtown on the bass, I would stop in seedy record shops and look for old recordings. I got one made in 1906. Because I wanted to have a foundation. Wynton Marsalis is doing a good job of making sure people get educated.
How did you start playing?
I came up in a neighborhood where all the music was there. I was raised in a black ghetto in Chicago. Even when I was a kid, we were singing all the time, imitating the Ink Spots and all those people. Trying out for talent shows. I got a bass. I used a broom stick at first because I didn't own an instrument. Then I got one that first Christmas, after I started playing, six months later. I guess the first person I played with was a guy who lived in my mother's apartment, in the basement. There was a piano down in the basement, and we used to jam, play boogie-woogie bass lines, stuff like that. One thing led to another. I was turning out for the high school band, and then I started to get gigs. So I got started. The man [at our high school] who started me was Walter Henri Dyett. He was the teacher of Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Lou Rawls, Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons.
Do you still do studio recordings and have enough opportunities to perform live?
Oh, yeah. I travel quite a bit to perform. I go to New York, Japan, anywhere in the country. I just got back from Georgia, Oklahoma, Detroit. Just had a performance on campus in May with James Williams. I just did a thing for Rickie Lee Jones. Ben Sidran called me in. See, in New York I was doing studio recordings three or four days a week. But that's not here. I perform a lot, but not as much in Madison. People ask me why I don't play in Madison, and I say I don't know. My thing is, I play when I'm asked. I didn't set out not to play in Madison, it's just what's happening.
Is it difficult to balance your work as a performing artist who travels a lot and your duties at the university?
I think they're one and the same. I will concentrate on [the Retention Action Project paperwork] until about 3 o'clock today, then I'll go somewhere else, music. I play at least an hour a day. Just to keep my fingers nimble and to keep my thoughts going. My head is always tuning music.
But the thing that I cherish the most is the work that I do as far as diversity on this campus goes. It gives me a whole lot of ideas. I've learned so much about me.
What are some of the things it's taught you about yourself?
Some of it has taught me what I've neglected to see. What I've neglected to accept. What I have neglected to make a point of. Like I went to this meeting the other day and I noticed that I was the only person of color there. I don't know what I would have done 10, 20 years ago. The difference is that today I told them I couldn't stay, because if I did, I would be applauding what I saw. These people were associated with ancient history, but there were no people of color there, which to me disfigures the pictures.
It does seem interesting to me that all the early articles I've read about you are about jazz and about the work of making music. Whenever the question of race is introduced, you'll say, "Well yeah, there are problems, but I'm busy doing all this other stuff. Let's talk about the music." Now it seems like you've become a philosopher about race.
Well, you look around and see what you have not done. But to answer your question about why my interest in race shows up now: because I have an 18-year old daughter. And when she was born, I was much older, my other children were gone, and this one was female too -- I'm very protective of females. And when she was born, as beautiful as she was, I knew one day she was gonna be called a nigger. You look at this beautiful, innocent baby and you can't understand why everybody else doesn't see her as a beautiful, innocent baby.
She entered kindergarten in 1987 and that was when I moved away from Barneveld, in the country, and moved into Madison. I was up at the school from day one making sure that her existence was as important as any other person's. By that I mean: Were there pictures on the wall of black people? Were there books representing black people in a positive way? Every book that came to that school I looked at. I got to know that librarian. Because I wanted her to feel that her existence was as or more important than anyone else's. I raised her to believe that. Fortunately, and without me knowing, the school district had a policy of mixing integrated kids. So that was a good beginning.
I used to go to all the PTA meetings. They saw me there twice a week. The thing I brought up -- and people don't respond when you bring up things that are uncomfortable -- I said we're talking all of this multiculturalism today with kids in kindergarten. Are we still going to feel the same when they reach puberty? When one wants to bring a black guy home with her? Then what?
I brought this question up at church too. I used to go to church with a woman I was dating. They broke us up into small groups to get to know each other better. I said, "You know, one thing that needs to be talked about a lot is race. Let's talk about racial issues." They acted like they never heard me.
Sometimes you see these shows where people are debating, and you know who gets quiet? The white people. Because they were afraid they were going to be accused of being racist. You got to make it so people can talk it out and feel what they want. Not be condemned because of their feelings. Then you're on your way to healing.