Remembering Richard Davis, Prolific Bassist, Educator, and Founding Member of CYSO

It is with sadness that we share the passing of renowned bassist, educator, and 1948 CYSO alum Richard Davis. Davis died last week at his home in Madison, Wisconsin at the age of 93. Davis was a member of CYSO’s founding orchestra and played on our very first concert in November 1947. He went on to an illustrious career, playing with some of the most famous names in jazz, classical, and pop music, including Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Leonard Bernstein, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, and many more. His family set up a memorial page to honor Davis’ memory and his impact on American music.

“We are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of bassist and educator Richard Davis, a founding member of CYSO in 1946 who performed with the most iconic orchestra conductors and jazz musicians of our time,” said CYSO Music Director Allen Tinkham. “He believed that ‘an orchestra promotes the oneness of people’ and was dedicated to passing on his love of music to the next generation. We are honored that he was part of our CYSO family and will miss his presence in our world.”

CYSO featured an alumni interview with Richard Davis back in 2016. He spoke about being a shy kid from Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood who had his first exposure to high level music-making when he joined the brand new Youth Orchestra of Greater Chicago (later renamed Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras). As a young high school sophomore and the only Black member of the ensemble, Davis remembered that at first he mostly kept to himself during rehearsals. It was Walter Dyett, Davis’ music director at DuSable High School who mentored many future jazz stars, who encouraged Davis to open up to his fellow musicians. Davis got to know many of the other members over the coming years, including one who would be a life-long friend—cellist Lowell Creitz, who later taught alongside Davis at the University of Wisconsin.

Richard Davis, second from the right, rehearses with members of the CYSO bass section in 1948

After high school, Richard Davis went on to study music at VanderCook College, but recognized that as a young Black man, a professional career in classical music would be difficult, if not impossible. He told the New York Times in 2011, “I was 18 years old and I could play any and all of the European classical music, but you weren’t allowed to participate in the symphony orchestra because there were racial issues and prejudices. They didn’t want to see you.”

After graduating from college in 1952, Davis was mentored by local bassists in Chicago and had his first major gig with celebrated pianist Ahmad Jamal. Davis went on to work with Don Shirley (the musician whose story is told in the movie “Green Book”) and eventually moved to New York City in 1954. Davis toured with singer Sarah Vaughan from 1957-1962, after which his career as a freelance musician grew rapidly. He recorded with jazz greats including Eric Dolphy, Tony Williams, Booker Ervin, and Andrew Hill and in 1966, became the founding bassist in the Thad Jones–Mel Lewis Orchestra, a group with which he remained until 1972.

Richard Davis performs behind Sarah Vaughan

Davis’ debut album Heavy Sounds was released in 1967 and he would continued recording his own albums continuously over the next 35 years. Davis’ final album The Bassist: Homage to Diversity in 2001. It was during the 1970s that his career outside of jazz began to expand. As a classical musician, he performed under the baton of some of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, including Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, and Pierre Boulez. He also played with some of pop music’s biggest albums of the era—Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and Born to Run, and Paul Simon’s There Goes That Rhymin’ Simon. Richard Davis ultimately played on more than 600 albums throughout his prolific career.

Davis moved back to the midwest in 1977 when he accepted an offer to teach at the University of Wisconsin Madison. He served as Professor of Bass, Jazz History, and Jazz Ensemble for nearly 40 years, retiring in 2016. Davis reflected on his role as an educator in a 2013 interview on the National Endowment for the Arts podcast, “I approach teaching as a learning experience. I look forward to students teaching me, I think it’s an equal sharing….But I’m always encouraging them to the potential, to do the best and don’t worry about anything. Leave the worry to me.”

Richard Davis looks on as his University of Wisconsin students practice. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

Davis acknowledged that his early music experiences ultimately went on to shape his career and, in addition to his work as a professor, he was a champion and advocate of young musicians throughout his life. He founded the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists, which continues to hold a popular annual conference in Wisconsin.

In addition to his devotion to to music, Davis was also a respected activist. He founded the Madison branch of the Institute for the Healing of Racism in 2000 and hosting weekly meetings to make the city more welcoming for people of color. In 2019, a Madison street was renamed Richard Davis Lane in his honor.

Richard Davis received a Jazz Masters fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2014.

Davis’ impact on music is immeasurable and he remains one of CYSO’s most prolific alumni. His legacy has been remembered this week in the New York Times, Downbeat, Wisconsin State Journal, Pitchfork, and his life in photos from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

For more on his early musical life, read CYSO’s 2016 interview with him and for more about his career, check out this feature from the Chicago Reader published in 2022.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This