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Richard Davis’ impact resonates in a graceful “virtual bass choir’

The legendary bassist and UW-Madison professor turns 90 today.

Photo by mtphrames on Flickr.

For the last 27 years, Richard Davis and his Foundation for Young Bassists have hosted an annual conference here in Madison, keeping at it even after the legendary bassist retired from his longtime post as a professor at UW-Madison in 2016. Held over Easter weekend, the conference gives bass students from around the country a chance to study intensively with Davis and many other bassists from across the jazz, classical, and rock worlds. This year’s conference was canceled, just like everything else.

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However, the conference’s teachers and would-be attendees pulled together beautifully on a rendition of Duke Ellington’s composition “Azure,” released on YouTube over the weekend. It’s also just in time for Davis’ 90th birthday, which is today. WORT DJ Chuck France will be celebrating the occasion this afternoon on Journeys Into Jazz, airing from 2 to 5 p.m.

Ben Ferris, a bassist and bandleader known for his work in projects including Mr. Chair, arranged “Azure” for 42 different bassists—”ages 7 to 78,” Ferris notes. Most are young music students, and a few are practitioners who teach at the conference, including Rufus Reid, Peter Dominguez, Marlene Rosenberg, John Kennedy, Mark Urness, and Ferris himself, who also fists on the foundation’s board. A few recorded only audio, but most show up in this video, a stupendous grid of low end:

The graceful melodies of “Azure,” concise but harmonically complex, bring out the tenderness and flexibility that a thoughtful player can find in the bass. A few of the performers in the “virtual bass orchestra” are playing electric bass but most are playing standup bass. Davis’ foundation places special emphasis on making it easier for younger musicians to learn the standup bass (aka string bass or double bass), because the size and expense of the instrument create obvious obstacles. Ferris worked remotely and one-on-one with many of the players to help them master their parts, which each musician recorded separately. He then painstakingly edited together the audio and video pieces, a process that on its own took three days and “made my computer sweat,” he says.

“I chose ‘Azure’ because it was a piece that Richard had been performing and the lyric is particularly good for right now,” Ferris says. “Also it’s a beautiful piece and the way the harmony lays out it works well for multiple basses.”

Ellington’s manager Irving Mills wrote the lyrics to “Azure.” Artists from Ella Fitzgerald to Cecil Taylor have recorded vocal or instrumental versions of the piece. There are no vocals on the virtual bass orchestra’s version—because it’s literally all bass—but the lyrical themes of seclusion and internal reflection come through: “Drifting, dreaming / In an azure mood / Stardust gleaming / Through my solitude,” go the opening lines.

“I’ve done quite a few arrangements for bass choir,” Ferris says. “A big part is knowing the instrument well and then also, in this context writing, music at a variety of levels for educational purposes. For the bass choir, range is somewhat reduced from what you could do with a regular orchestra, and I have to be careful about things like too much in the lower register if I want clarity.”

Davis himself might not be in the video. But it does reflect the impact he’s had in music education, on top of a vast and versatile career that’s given us so much to listen back to and admire.

“Richard gets a lot of cred for his playing but often the educator and activist part is overlooked. He’s done some really innovative stuff in those areas,” Ferris says.

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