September 28, 2023

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Richard Davis, Vaunted Bassist and Pop Sideman, Dies at 93

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Richard Davis, the bassist and educator who played with jazz legends, pop stars, and classical composers, has died after years of hospice care, Madison 365 and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report, citing his daughter Persia Davis. The virtuoso bassist and NEA Jazz Master recorded more than 20 albums under his own name and collaborated with icons including Eric Dolphy, Elvin Jones, Archie Shepp, Dorothy Ashby, Roland Kirk, Pharoah Sanders, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughan. He cut records with Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand, playing all manner of jazz styles as well as blues, pop, rock, folk, and classical, drawing praise from Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein. Davis was 93 years old.

Born in Chicago in 1930, Davis became a member of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras after high school and studied at the VanderCook College of Music. In the late 1960s he was a member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra; from 1967 through 1974, he was named Best Bassist in Downbeat magazine’s International Critics’ Poll.

In the 1970s, Davis became a coveted sideman for pop artists, playing on Laura Nyro’s Smile and Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and Born to Run. He was the de facto bandleader in the sessions for Van Morrison’s classic LP Astral Weeks, and is widely credited with having influenced its sound. In 1977, he moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to become a professor of bass, jazz, and ensemble at the University of Wisconsin, where he would teach for decades.

In the 1990s, he created the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists with his former student Peter Dominguez. The Foundation holds annual master classes for musicians ranging from three to 18 years old. Late in his career, Davis directed efforts to foster racial unity. In 1998, he created the Retention Action Project to facilitate dialog on race and culture; in 2000, he founded the Institutes for the Healing of Racism, aiming to raise consciousness about the history and pathology of racism.

In tribute to her late father, Persia Davis wrote on a memorial page, “Richard touched the lives of thousands and will be missed by friends, family, fans, students, and colleagues around the world.”

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