The New NEA Jazz Masters: Richard Davis

The 20014 NEA Jazz Masters will receive their awards in a ceremony at New York’s Lincoln Center Monday evening, January 13. The four recipients are pianist Keith Jarrett, saxophonist Anthony Braxton, bassist Richard Davis and— in the jazz advocacy category—publisher, recording executive and musician Jamey Aebersold. They will be the 32nd group in the jazz community to be so honored since the National Endowment for the Arts established the recognition program in 1982. The affair will include performances by young musicians cited by the NEA as rising stars, among them vibraharpist Warren Wolf and bassist Yasushi Nakamura, There will be appearances by several former medal winners including Jimmy Heath, David Liebman, Roy Haynes and Annie Ross. The ceremony will be streamed live on the internet at 7:30 p.m. on the and Jazz at Lincoln Center websites.

Richard Davis 1974Over the next three days, Rifftides will post sketches about and performances by the new Jazz Masters, beginning with Davis. The bassist was a powerful presence on the New York jazz scene in the 1960s and ‘70s and remained in demand in clubs and studios there even after 1977, when he moved to the Midwest and a professorship at the University of Wisconsin. To give you an idea of the scope of Davis’s abilities, here are two brief segments from my notes for his 1972 album The Philosophy of the Spiritual:

If you were watching a few seasons ago when the National Educational Television network broadcast a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert of Igor Stravinsky conducting some of his works, you saw the maestro emerge from the wings and bow toward a bassist added for the special occasion. At the conclusion of the concert, Stravinsky paused as he left the stage to put his hand on the bassist’s shoulder, a tribute to the slender, elegant black man many musicians consider the world’s greatest bass player. He is Richard Davis.

The following Monday night, Davis was jammed between the saxophone section and a wall of the Village Vanguard, Max Gordon’s funky little wedge-shaped basement in New York. The Vanguard is a far cry from Symphony Hall, but it’s Valhalla to aficionados of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra…

Davis was the bassist for the Jones-Lewis band from 1966 to 1972, which many musicians, listeners and critics believe to have been the orchestra’s peak years. During that time, as a freelancer he was in constant demand for concerts and recording sessions with artists as varied as Earl Hines, Eric Dolphy, Frank Sinatra and John Lennon. I’ve always been partial to the photograph above of Davis playing his lion-headed bass at the recording session for Phil Woods’ Musique Du Bois (1974). The dream rhythm section was Davis, pianist Jaki Byard and drummer Alan Dawson.

From The Philoslophy of the Spiritual, here he is (left channel) with fellow bassist Bill Lee (right channel), pianist Chick Corea, guitarist Sam Brown, drummer Sonny Brown and Frankie Dunlop adding subtle percussion touches.

Next time, we’ll consider NEA Jazz Master Anthony Braxton.

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  1. Dick Unsworth says

    Where and when did I ever miss hearing bassist Richard Davis? His rich sound is worthy of the best of basses. Thanks once again for the treat, Doug.

  2. Ken says

    Twenty years ago I was fortunate to hear Davis lead a quintet here in Charlottesville, but I first became aware of him as the guy who played the gorgeous bass on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks record. It’s so nice to see him getting this award.

  3. George Ziskind says

    In the mid-60s, shortly after I moved to NYC from Chicagoland, I often took advantage of a standing invite from my pal Pete Matz to attend rehearsals for the old Perry Como TV show, at NBC’s Brooklyn color studios on Avenue M. Pete was Musical Director for the show and told me it would be a good way for me to meet many players in my new town.

    Predictably, and almost needless to say, the band was staffed with all-stars, one of whom was Richard Davis. After meeting him and as he walked away, Pete whispered to me “The band tunes up to him!”

    Whether true or simply friendly hyperbole, a helluva compliment!