Madison and the music world mourn Richard Davis, towering bassist and professor

His impact cuts across multiple decades of modern music, and generations of students.
A photo shows bassist Richard Davis, likely in his late 40s at the time, playing an upright bass. He is shown in side profile, looking intently to the left with an expression of concentration, and his left hand is visible on the neck of the bass.
Richard Davis, as pictured on the cover of his album “Fancy Free,” released in 1977—the same year Davis became a professor at UW-Madison. Photo by Phil Bray.

His impact cuts across multiple decades of modern music, and generations of students.

Editor’s Note: We’ll be updating and expanding this article as we gather more comments and remembrances from Richard Davis’ students, collaborators, and friends. If you’d like to share something with us, please reach out to Steven Spoerl at

Richard Davis, whose career as a bassist and educator spanned nearly 70 years of monumental accomplishment, died on Wednesday, September 6, at age 93. 

Madison365 reported on Thursday that Davis had “requested no public memorial service,” but that his daughter, Persia Davis, had set up an online memorial page

Simply put, no understanding of 20th-century music would be complete without Davis. Born in 1930 in Chicago, Davis moved to New York City in his early 20s and established himself as a master of his instrument. He left an indelible mark on jazz, classical, and rock music. Just the broad overview of his contributions would need to take in his early-career days playing with legendary jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan; collaborations with other fellow jazz giants like Eric Dolphy, Pharaoh Sanders, and Elvin Jones; performances with pivotal classical conductor-composers including Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein; recording on landmark rock albums including Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run; and his albums as a bandleader. He created not a body of work but multiple bodies of work, each of which demands to be explored in fullness on its own terms. 

Davis made a profound impact in Madison, teaching and mentoring multiple generations of musicians. He moved here in 1977 to take a job as a professor at UW-Madison, working in that role until his retirement in 2016. During that time he not only taught courses in music and music history and led ensembles of student players, but also created the Richard Davis Foundation For Young Bassists, which still hosts an annual conference of workshops and performances, and branched out into social-justice activism by founding the Madison, WI Institutes for the Healing of Racism and the campus-focused Retention Action Project. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Madison-based musicians, across a wide range of genres, instruments, and ages, have studied under Davis at one point or another. There’s even a street named after Davis on the east side. 

“One of the main reasons that I came to Madison was because he was here, and not being a bass player, I always had an appreciation for his work with other players,” says saxophonist and Café Coda owner Hanah Jon Taylor, who moved here from Chicago in the early 1990s. “I thought that if I had the honor of being in his proximity that I may learn something from him, and I was correct in that and honored by the few opportunities that I did have to play with him.

“I’m inspired by having known him and having that close proximity as I did,” Taylor says. “I just believe that this community has been made a better community by him, and I think that all of us are better musicians in this community because of him, because of the way he carried the music with such dignity.” 

A vast array of musicians, scholars, listeners, journalists, critics began to pay tribute to Davis as word of his death spread Thursday afternoon and in the following days. 

Among them was Roscoe Mitchell, the pioneering reedist, improviser, and composer. Davis played on Mitchell’s 1990 album Songs In The Wind. The two had much in common: straddling the worlds of classical music and pathbreaking jazz, becoming revered both as musicians and as educators, and spending large portions of their lives in the Madison area. 

“Richard Davis—an outstanding player of the upright bass. He could really make the instrument sing,” Mitchell tells Tone Madison via email. “He was also a prize student of Walter Dyett. His recordings will live forever!”

“I learned things from Richard Davis that I will carry with me throughout my life as a teacher, listener, musician, and human being,” says Charles Hughes, a professor of urban studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, who earned his PhD at UW-Madison in 2012. Hughes, who has written extensively about music and authored books including Why Bushwick Bill Matters, took Davis’ jazz history class as an undergrad, and stayed in touch as he went on to grad school.

“Getting to work with him at UW-Madison was a pleasure and privilege, and I feel so grateful for his support and example, as well as his kindness,” Hughes says. “The whole world benefited from Davis’ transformative work as a musician, and I’m glad to be one of those who additionally learned from him as an educator. A life well and powerfully lived.”

Davis’ presence in Wisconsin proved enriching for many, including veteran journalist and occasional Tone Madison contributor Jane Burns, who recalls interacting with Davis when the two were residents of Mt. Horeb. “I was in high school and worked at the local grocery store. Somehow we struck up a few conversations, good ones, when I worked there,” says Burns. “He always asked how things were, what I was up to, what my future plans were. I think once he even came to watch one of my basketball games,” Burns continues.

“He always said he couldn’t wait til I became a famous writer because then he could tell people he knew me. That always cracked me up but as a high school kid, it also meant the world to me,” recalls Burns. “When I graduated from high school, I went to Switzerland with my bestie and her family to visit and stay with some of her relatives. Richard was excited about this because he, too, was going to be in Switzerland and said maybe we’d bump into each other. I was in a little village in the mountains. HE WAS AT THE MONTREUX JAZZ FESTIVAL. No, our paths did not cross,” says Burns in an email. She notes that the two of them would try to reconnect later in life, but those plans didn’t ever seem to come together, something likely attributed to Davis’ demanding schedule. 

Just knowing about Davis’ presence on campus could prove inspiring. “I try to play Out To Lunch! in my painting classes in Humanities and let the kids know that Emeritus Professor R. Davis taught right downstairs,” recalls painter and UW-Madison art professor Derrick Buisch, referring to Davis’ work on Eric Dolphy’s landmark 1964 album.

Writing Thursday for Rolling Stone, journalist Daniel Kreps noted Davis’ role in the emergence of adventurous, improvisational approaches to jazz:

“Limiting yourself to a particular set of notes and chords is in a sense being a slave to the powers that be,” Davis, a friend of fellow voyager Sun Ra, would later say of free jazz. “We were resisting being imprisoned by chord changes, trying to free ourselves from the restrictions of scales and rhythms. Some people call this free music. Some of us called it our music. Unrestricted, indefinable, and free.” Nowhere is that more evident than Pharoah Sanders’ jazz masterpiece “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” which Davis also played on.

Rolling Stone

On Twitter, Kreps also noted that Davis was “the last living witness to and participant of” Out To Lunch!

Jesse Ponkamo, bassist of Appleton-formed punk institution Tenement, points to Davis’ work on Japanese percussionist Tatsuya Nakamura’s mesmeric free jazz album Song Of Pat, released in 1976, and Dolphy’s Out To Lunch! “It’s super well recorded and is a curious meeting between a Japanese drummer and these American guys,” says Ponkamo of Song Of Pat. He notes that “Richard is such a tremendous player” and that Davis’ playing on Out To Lunch! was critical in establishing a degree of familiarity so comprehensive that it’s what Ponkamo will turn to in an effort to assess audio performance. “The sonic qualities and also emotional weight of that album are so familiar I can instantly pinpoint qualities in a stereo system,” Ponkamo notes.

Tone Madison has reached out to a number of Davis’ students and collaborators for comment, and we’ll continue to expand this story as we hear back from more sources.

Nada Elmikashfi, Chief of Staff for State Rep. Francesca Hong and Isthmus columnist

My favorite memory of Professor Richard Davis was walking him after our racial justice class (Oneness of Humankind) to his office at the University Club. He was the first Black teacher I’d ever had at that point, and so our conversations spanned as many topics as I could fit in the 10 minutes it took us to get there. He never met my rapid fire questions with anything but enthusiasm—listening, correcting, and challenging me with that irrefutable kindness that only comes with deep wisdom.

I was an angry Black kid then. I mean, we all remember how at 18 the injustices of the world seem to be magnified and unavoidable. But Professor Davis taught me to take that anger and diagnose it as pain. He taught me that it was up to me whether I wallowed in it or grew from it. And I chose to grow from it, and that lesson has been the single most important gift I’ve ever been given. 

Professor Davis didn’t tell us as a class that he was a world-renowned bassist. One of us discovered it in the middle of the semester and when we confronted him with “did you really work with Van Morrison and Frank Sinatra, why didn’t you tell us?!” he ignored us, gave a little half smile, and went about his business. 

Humble, humorous, honest, Richard Davis was a rare and magnificent human being. I’m so honored to have met him and hope so much that his legacy as an activist and artist lives on for years to come.

Anneliese Valdes, multi-instrumentalist and member of Gentle Brontosaurus

When I was 14, I got it in my head that I wanted to play the double bass. My school in Cambridge was too small to have an orchestra, so the only option to learn how to play it was through private lessons. A friend of a family friend was a UW bass student studying with Richard Davis, and that’s how my first introduction to him was made. Now, you’d think this college professor and world-renowned musician wouldn’t have time to give beginner lessons to some teenager who’d barely touched the instrument before, but that’s not what Richard was like. He loved taking young bassists under his wing and making sure they had access to quality instruction on an instrument that wasn’t always easy to find teachers for.

I started taking lessons from Richard, and my parents were really involved and supportive. On Sunday mornings, we’d drive to his house by Monona Bay, and one or both of them would hang out while I learned how to hold a bow (German style, because that’s how Richard had learned), how to use a tuning fork, how to find the harmonics on the strings, where to place my fingers on the fingerboard, and all kinds of other things that sound super basic but are also utterly foundational to actually being decent at the instrument. After my Sunday morning lesson, we’d stick around while some other youth bassists from the area would arrive for a group lesson and all-bass quartet. For a while, we had an all-girl, all-bass quartet that met regularly at his house. Richard told us he’d had an older cousin who liked the bass and had encouraged him to play when he was young. When he asked her why she didn’t play, she replied, “Girls don’t play bass.” So I think he was a little bit tickled that several decades later, we were proving that wasn’t the case at all.

I don’t even know how much Richard was charging for my lessons. What I did later learn, though, was that the money my parents spent on lessons went toward funding the Richard Davis Foundation For Young Bassists. Richard had noticed that sometimes bassists would get to college and skill-wise would be a bit behind their peers who played other instruments. It was simply because those other instrumentalists were more likely to have access to teachers who actually played those instruments as opposed to the bassists whose orchestra teacher had maybe taken one semester in college on it. The weekend-long symposium was offered to kids aged 3-18 at a very low cost (the first couple of years may have even been free to attend!). Some of the best double bassists from around the country would fly to Madison for very little money to offer workshops to youth bassists of literally every skill level.

I didn’t end up sticking with double bass after high school, but my dad decided to pick up the instrument that I had left behind. He also started taking lessons with Richard, and my family maintained a casual friendship with him for years. 

One of the last times I saw Richard was at the annual symposium clinician concert a few years back. He had retired from teaching and was in a wheelchair. A small group was gathered around him chatting. When I walked up, he shouted out, “Hey, there’s my other daughter!” Even 20 years later, I was still one of his kids.

When I was 14 or 15, Richard mentioned my mom and me in the liner notes of his album, Reminisces. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world to have my name in print like that.

Wilder Deitz, pianist, educator, and founder of the Wilder Deitz School for Creative Music

Richard was a man of such dignity, strength, and musical power that him merely allowing you to remain in his presence (and not all passed that test) gave you some kind of hope for yourself. I wouldn’t be the man or musician I am today without his mentorship.

Amelia Royko Maurer, activist

Richard and I spent a lot of time together listening to music and the last time I visited with him was this late spring. I asked him what his favorite recording was—one that he played on—and he told me David Young was his favorite recording of work he had done on someone else’s album. It didn’t take him long to think about it either. I asked and without skipping a beat he said “David Young.”

I had never heard of David Young before, never saw the album in Richard’s collection, and it took me a bit to find him online because he isn’t listed on Wiki in the discography for recordings Richard played on. If he mentioned David Young in BMH, I didn’t remember but I don’t think he did as I took careful notes.

I found David Young’s single, self-titled recording on Bandcamp. We listened to it for a little while and it is, as expected, incredible. Richard closed his eyes, smiled, and looked so content. I had to leave before it was over so we planned to pick it back up over some Portillo’s the next time I was out.

I had wanted to get Richard out to see some live music and to see the countryside where he used to live and where I now live. It wasn’t possible but we had that last afternoon together doing what we had done for much of the time we had spent in the past and I will treasure this visit always.

Jordan Cohen, drummer and producer (Chants, Mama Digdown’s Brass Band)

After failing my first audition, I had the privilege of being in Richard Davis’ Black Music Ensemble for each semester after that during undergrad, as well as taking his Black Music History class (more than once, if I recall correctly). Attitude and dedication were more important than talent, although there were plenty of incredibly talented musicians in those groups, and many of those relationships have continued to this day. I always felt that he was trying to recreate the musical environment that was present when he came up in Chicago and NYC, when you could be surrounded by dedicated musicians who were living and breathing the music 24/7 (and there was also a healthy dose of competition). This didn’t always translate cleanly to an academic environment and not everyone was ready for it. When I was there, he had a habit of kicking people out of class (often for the entire semester) if they hadn’t done the preparation he had asked for, or tried to argue in their own defense rather than learn the lesson that he was trying to impart. You’d still get the single credit and a good grade, but it wasn’t about that. I always felt that there was an opening for them to come back anyway, but few took it. 

Somehow I survived while much better musicians dropped out because they didn’t connect with this approach or had bruised egos, and it certainly wasn’t due to any degree of talent or skill on my part. I think he appreciated that I took the time to study the history of the music and could remember who played on what jazz record, but more so that I was stubborn about staying in the group. After he learned that I was an absolutely terrible singer, he had me call him every morning at 5 a.m. and sing scales (often to his answering machine). His lessons were often non-musical in nature, and were the sort that take years for you to properly absorb and appreciate them. 

The Black Music History class was a break from the intensity of the ensemble classes, and was truly an amazing opportunity to hear stories from his entire life in music, as well as Black American history in general. It was sometimes very serious but often hilarious. Some of his very favorite singers were Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, and Al Green. He loved Lucky Thompson, Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Blanton, Connie Kay (who he called “the security guard” for his solid time), and Lewis Nash (who could play everything that all the other drummers could play, but quietly). 

(I don’t think he loved being asked a disproportionate amount of questions about Astral Weeks, which was just one session among hundreds.)

I certainly spent more time thinking about and practicing for these one credit classes than I did for my English major. They were an absolutely foundational experience for me, less in terms of the specifics of playing music and more about what lies behind it, and about the general living of life.

Some of my favorite Richard Davis recordings:

  • Elvin Jones and Richard Davis, Heavy Sounds
  • Eric Dolphy, Out To Lunch!
  • Booker Ervin, The Freedom Book / The Song Book / The Blues Book / The Space Book
  • Joe Henderson, In ‘n Out
  • Andrew Hill, Point Of Departure

Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Rip, Rig, And Panic

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