‘The man was truly larger than life’: Ben Sidran on bassist Richard Davis
Bassist Richard Davis died on September 6, 2023, and since then many tributes and remembrances have appeared in print and on social media attesting to his unique musicianship, profound strength of character, and importance in the worlds of jazz and popular music. The man was truly larger than life, with a regal demeanor and a huge smile. At the same time, he was warm, soft-spoken, and very much connected to the lives of numerous friends, musicians and generations of students. He was a man of his community, generous with his time, whether it was a technical question from a student or a larger, more existential question about how to live on the straight and narrow in a crooked world. He was a practicing Buddhist and for all his modesty Richard was not backward about coming forward.
He had moved to Wisconsin in the summer of 1977 to teach at the University in Madison. Earlier that year, I had recorded with him in New York, and when he mentioned that he was moving to a farm outside of Madison to be able to stable and ride his beloved horses, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Over time it was clear the good fortune was not just mine.
Playing with Richard was often like being launched into space. He would take unexpected twists and turns, and his soloing was nonpareil. Over the years, we played a lot of gigs – in large halls and small clubs, in museums and on outdoor stages – but the ones that I remember most are the gigs we played in the prisons and high schools throughout the state. The Arts Board had funded the two of us to travel the back roads in the name of cultural outreach and to bring music to the inmates of both institutions. We drove, usually in Richard’s car, with the great lions-head bass in the back, through towns like Baraboo and Taycheedah, talking about the old days – he once told me that when he was at DuSable high school in Chicago, he was so intimidated by saxophonist Johnny Griffiin, a fellow student, that when he saw him in the halls he would run the other way. He was happy to talk about his life in music, but he was most passionate about social justice.
In one particular prison, the two of us played in the center of a large auditorium. There was an upright piano in the center where the two of us set up and the inmates sat in wooden bleachers all around us. We played a couple of tunes, and then, to my surprise and the chagrin of the guards, Richard invited some of the inmates down to “the stage” to join us by scat singing as we played. As is the case in most prisons, the majority of the convicts were Black and when he called them down, several came like moths to the flame. That simple invitation, in front of their peers and their jailers, confirmed their humanity.
Years later, at a conference where the topic was the case for reparations, Richard was to say, “Why not start with the new slaves — the prisoners … Instead of wasting money sending another man to the moon, use the funds to educate prisoners and their children.” Richard was an activist on racial issues. He was the founder of the Madison chapter of The Institute for the Healing of Racism as well as The Institute for Young Bassists, an annual gathering of musicians from all over the world. To Richard, these activities were intimately connected.
Richard died peacefully. He had been in hospice care for many months, time spent watching old black and white Turner Classic movies on TV and being visited regularly by a stream of musicians, past students and old friends. They came to pay tribute and to reminisce, occasionally bringing lunch (his favorite foods included St. Louis cut barbeque ribs and Fig Newtons.) On the wall of his room hung the framed declaration from the Governor of Wisconsin acknowledging his contributions to the community.