Bass professor Richard Davis receives nation’s highest jazz honor

June 27, 2013

by Susannah Brooks

Photo: Richard Davis

Richard Davis talks with a student during the annual Bass Conference hosted by the Richard Davis Foundation at UW-Madison in 2011.

Photo: Bryce Richter

Richard Davis can add one more leaf to his many laurels.

On Thursday, June 27, the National Endowment for the Arts named Davis, a professor of bass, jazz history, and combo improvisation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of four 2014 NEA Jazz Masters, considered the highest honor for a living jazz musician. Recognizing his lifetime achievements and exceptional contributions to the advancement of jazz,Davis will receive a one-time award of $25,000.

Each year since 1982, the arts endowment has conferred the NEA Jazz Masters Award to living legends who have made major contributions to jazz. Only living musicians or jazz advocates may be nominated for the honor. For the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters, the panel considered 144 nominations.

“The campus ensembles he leads provide world-class training for student performers, as well as joy and inspiration to audiences.”

Susan Cook

“Richard Davis has been at the forefront of both jazz performance and, especially, jazz education for decades,” says Susan C. Cook, professor and incoming director of the UW-Madison School of Music. “The campus ensembles he leads provide world-class training for student performers, as well as joy and inspiration to audiences. This recognition from the NEA is a fitting tribute to his long and distinguished career.”

Johannes Wallmann, who leads UW-Madison’s jazz studies program, also praised Davis’s selection.

“As colleagues, we’re thrilled that he has been recognized with this richly deserved award,” says Wallmann. “He’s a huge figure in this music; I’ve known of his work for years. He has set a new standard for jazz bass playing, and our students are so lucky to have him as a resource.” 

The award places Davis in the same category as 131 luminaries such as Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and the Marsalis family.

“It was an honor to be recognized amongst my peers,” says Davis, recognizing the past generations of musicians. “I’ve worked with almost all of them. A lot of people were, in a sense, models.”

Watch a 2012 "Forward Motion" episode about Davis

Read a 2011 profile of Davis in On Wisconsin Magazine

He points to one in particular: bassist Milt Hinton, a 1993 honoree who passed away in 2000.

“His career was just phenomenal,” says Davis. “When I moved to New York, he introduced me to a lot of people who made my career successful.”

Davis is known as a remarkably prolific sideman, performing and recording in nearly every genre. Chicago born, he came to UW-Madison after spending 23 years in New York City establishing himself as one of the world's premier bass players.

“Richard Davis, with his wide palette of skill sets, has been an inspiration for me and many bassists,” says bassist and composer Linda Oh in Davis’s NEA citation. “To me, he shows strength and versatility within his musicianship — a versatility that seems to not compromise integrity and individuality, something many bassists can only dream to achieve."

“Living is excitement. Each hour, day, minute brings on another surprise. You need to grow.”

Richard Davis

This passionate curiosity has extended to his career as an educator. Since 1977, he has passed that multidimensionality on to students at UW-Madison.

“I think the ability is a necessary path to grow on, incorporate all musics,” says Davis. “As Duke Ellington said, ‘there’s only two kinds: good and bad.’ He was right.”

His years at UW-Madison sometimes seem like a small part of his teaching career. When he shares knowledge, on and off campus, he rarely limits himself to a single time or subject. He leads seminars on racial healing from his home; he convenes dozens of young bassists for annual conferences.

So what’s next?

“Just living,” he says. “Living is excitement. Each hour, day, minute brings on another surprise. You need to grow.”