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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
Richard Davis

Courtesy of Brian McMillen/Wikimedia Commons

Madison mourns Richard Davis, beloved professor and legendary bassist

Davis was a massively influential professor, musician and civil rights activist in the city of Madison and throughout the country.

Richard Davis, a beloved musician, teacher and activist, died Wednesday, Sept. 6 after spending two years in hospice care. 

Davis, who was 93 years old, performed on more than 3,000 albums and jingles, according to an obituary submitted by his daughter, Persia Davis, and recorded a dozen albums as lead artist. 

He was born in Chicago and began his musical career by singing bass in his family’s vocal trio along with his brothers. After finishing high school, Davis continued to study double bass and play with the Chicago Youth Symphony while also attending VanderCook College of Music. 

After he finished college, Davis was practically everywhere. Davis toured and recorded with the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra throughout the 1950s and began to work with groups and musicians both small and large in the ‘60s and ‘70s — names like jazz multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, big band legend Frank Sinatra and rock ’n’ roll monolith Bruce Springsteen. 

Raw musical talent was one of Davis’ many contributions to the world. He also founded the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists in 1993. The organization holds annual master classes for bassists from ages three to 18. 

He created the Retention Action Project, which focused on open dialogues on subjects related to multicultural differences to improve inclusivity and retention rates for students of color.

Davis also founded the Madison chapter of Institutes for the Healing of Racism, Inc., which hosts discussions and series encouraging open discussion, racial unity and interactions addressing racism in participants and their communities. Davis hosted the group’s meetings in his home until 2017, according to the Institute’s website.

“His Retention Action Project and the Institute for Healing Racism brought together people from across this area and throughout to discuss and strategize ways to combat racism,” former University of Wisconsin-Madison Assistant Dean Carlotta Calmese wrote on his memorial page. 

After performing and recording in New York for 23 years, Davis moved to Wisconsin in 1977 and started teaching bass, jazz history and improvisation at UW-Madison. 

Speakers and anti-racist activists including Peggy McIntosh and Jane Elliot were brought to campus by Davis, who would eventually receive honorary UW-Madison doctorate degrees in Musical Arts and Humane Letters for his academic work

Barb Caffery, an alto saxophonist, was one of Richard Davis’ former students. In her experience, Davis encouraged students to attack their dreams head-on.

“Davis would tell his students to spend less time criticizing one’s self and start doing stuff instead,” Caffery told The Daily Cardinal. 

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Davis strove to create respectful, community-driven classroom environments, Caffery added. “He made us feel valued, appreciated and wanted no matter what.”

Yet Davis was also friendly and personal with those he taught. 

“He wanted his students to call him Richard, instead of Professor Davis,” Caffery said.

And that classroom environment worked. 

“I remember having bassist friends that improved drastically after six months of studying with him,” Caffery said. “No experience you had [with Davis] was ever wasted time.”

Looking back, Caffery appreciates the inspiration and education Davis imparted on her and his other students.

“I learned a lot from him, and I only wish I would’ve gone back and told him that,” she said.

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