Bass Players to Know: Richard Davis

Richard Davis (early years)

As a college student, I spent many an afternoon roaming the streets of New York City, finding new routes to take me from my hole-in-the-wall apartment to the halls of academia, and creating new musical playlists along the way. I developed a healthy obsession to certain songwriters… Van Morrison, Janis Ian, Paul Simon, and even dabbled in some West Village jazz. Unbeknownst to me at the time, some of my favorite songs and street-walking music recorded in New York half a century earlier happened to feature the same bass player. So, with a list of album credits a mile long, ranging from jazz to pop and classical to rock, the incomparable Richard Davis is a bass player to know.

So Who Is Richard Davis?

Richard DavisHailing from Chicago, Davis was born in 1930 and grew up in a musical household before picking up the double bass. Under band director Captain Walter Dyett, he learned traditional upright technique and music theory before moving on to Vandercook College. After a few years of working in dance bands, he moved to New York City at the age of 24 and began to establish roots in the jazz scene. Davis quickly become a part of Sarah Vaughan’s band (both touring and recording), and found his way into the studio scene in New York.

Between the late 1950s and mid 1970s, Davis played in and around New York City; he was an in-demand upright player for sessions, local gigs, and tours. His background in jazz established him as a first-call for many legendary artists—Kenny Burrell, Eric Dolphy, Pat Martino, Wes Montgomery, Elvin Jones, Stan Getz, Laura Nyro, Joe Zawinul, Miles Davis, and countless others. Furthermore, his classical technique translated into working with many of the top orchestras and conductors, including Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, Igor Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, and George Szell. With such eclectic musical roots and an inherently melodic musical approach, Davis also fielded calls for pop, rock, and songwriter sessions, most notably Astral Weeks, by Van Morrison and records with Janis Ian, Bruce Springsteen, Barbara Streisand, Paul Simon, and Frank Sinatra.

In 1977, Davis decided to leave New York in favor of a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has since received a number of honorary degrees and special achievement awards, including the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award in 2014. He has been a dedicated faculty member, teaching both European Classical and Jazz bass studies, and founded the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists in 1993. An advocate for educational and cultural diversity, Davis continues to work with students and committees at the University to promote racial and ethnic awareness.

Let’s Talk Style

With a background in classical music and jazz, Davis maintains a beautiful balancing act—wavering between a free-spirited improviser and a disciplined accompanist. He easily adapts his playing style to the session and situation yet always maintains his own sound. Davis has a reverence for structure as he supports the song, a deep understanding of the classical tradition, and an approach to jazz that is both conventional and whimsical. His attitude and tone mirror each other as strong willed, charismatic, quirky, and full of heart.

As an accompanist, Davis has a keen understanding of playing to and with the song. He easily establishes forward motion and feel, particularly when playing with either a percussionist or “freer” kit player. Alongside singer songwriters, he frequently acts as the primary rhythm player, joined by either light percussion or a minimal kit, and provides both the harmonic and rhythmic bed for the song. He fulfills a similar role on many jazz records, clearly keeping time with a strong walking bass line or groove. Amidst defining the feel, Davis cleverly intersperses unique fills, triplet driven lines, and up-beat embellishments.

A particularly identifiable trait of Davis’ playing is his use of range; rather than staying to the lower notes of the instrument, he frequently jumps back and forth, relying heavily on open strings as he moves up and down the neck and leaping to the higher register for fills and melodic lines. He often relies on long, descending glissandos to draw the listener from one note to the next and to fill the sonic space as a vocalist would.

Where Can I Hear Him?

“Summertime” (Elvin Jones: Heavy Sounds)

Elvin Jones: Heavy SoundsOpening with a haunting and powerful bowed rendition of the melody, Davis explores the range and tonalities of the upright bass. His takes his time with the melody by using a classical approach with an intense vibrato on the notes he settles into. Upon switching to finger style playing, he again plays to the “Summmertime” theme but branches out by incorporating other tonal colors. He integrates quick melodic flourishes, moments of sonic experimentation, and the descending slides so characteristic of his style. Following the drum solo, he returns to the melody with careful and majestic bowing. The song concludes with an edgy and contemporary exploration of the instruments and sound… one that is certainly worthy of the title given to the album.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Astral Weeks” (Van Morrison: Astral Weeks)

Van Morrison: Astral WeeksIf there’s one instrument that propels this dynamic odyssey, it’s the upright bass of Davis. Firmly dictating the feel of the song, Davis plays a simple yet lively part that jumps between the two chords. He takes full advantage of the range of the instrument by jumping up the octave, playing the pattern in reverse, or by adding quick fills in the higher register. Midway through the track, he cleverly stays on the root as the guitar chords continue to change; this adds a bit of harmonic diversity and excitement. As the song comes to a close, he simplifies the pattern after taking cue from Morrison’s vocals. He subtly retreats, settlings into long root notes and a series of light chords before having the final say with a bowed note.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“At Seventeen” (Janis Ian: Between The Lines)

Janis Ian: Between The LinesFollowing poignant lyrics and a beautiful song structure, Davis’s bass line carries the song with a dignified feel, eloquent voice leading, and a developing theme. Throughout the course of the song, he plays with obvious consideration for arrangement; he applies a minimal approach at the onset of the song, builds dynamically through the verses, retreats alongside the rest of the rhythm section, and then revives the intensity towards the end. He uses long, descending slides to give movement to the song and mimic the vocal line and infuses the tune with syncopated fills in the higher register.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Richard Davis? Please share with us in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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  1. Great player. Glad to see Richard Davis featured. I think I fort heard him on Out to Lunch. Hugely recommend his playing with Dolphy, Bobby Hutcherson, Elvin Jones, especially David Murray. And check his solo album – Philosophy of the Spiritual

  2. Barry Wiesenfeld

    I studied with Richard in NYC until he left for Wisconsin. I don’t think I ever met a more generous-of-spirit, balanced, sweet man in my life. He took me under his wing, and I’ll never forget his influence. I saw him again at the NEA awards ceremony (Jazz Master) earlier this year, and it was a trip down memory lane and a thrill to see my old friend. One of the nicest people and finest musicians on the planet.

  3. Ryan, thanks for opening my eyes and ears to another awesome bassist. I didn’t Mr. Davis by name before your column. He has two honorary doctorates, several humanitarian awards and has a foundation for young bassists (see for details). It seems his humanity is as developed as his music. I can’t wait to see who I’ll learn about in your next column!

  4. francis coraggio

    I remember as a young bassist driving into NYC to hear great musicians on weekday nights. Richard Davis was always my favorite. Whether it was a small ensemble or a big band.Richards bouncy and flexible style was something I wished to learn from hearing him. His wide smile showed how happy he was to play around with contrary bass lines and solid walking styles. It was a yoy to just watch him having such a great time.