Skip to main content

Music professor makes involvement a priority

March 21, 2000

Richard Davis and students The energy of Aries seems to simmer and shimmer in Richard Davis, except when it’s erupting into action of all kinds.

“I have to have something going on all the time,” says Davis, who serves as professor of music – and world-renowned ambassador of the bass. When I sat with him in the studio-office of his home on Lake Monona, I could almost hear the hissing and popping of that Aries energy.

Davis is printing out document after document on his efforts to increase diversity at UW–Madison, while at the same time a fax comes in from a concert promoter in Paris (the one in France, not Illinois) who wants Davis to perform. Then he points to an old bass in the corner that he bought for a student because of something that happened to him in his youth. Next he calls his daughter, Persia, to congratulate her on a prize-winning essay she wrote about minority education, and then he wheels around to tell me with the smile that frequently graces his face, “We all need to get into the game, not sit on the sidelines.”

Whether it’s music or minorities, smack in the middle of the playing field is where you’ll find Richard Davis. Among his accomplishments, he formed the Retention Action Project (RAP) in August 1998 to improve the retention of students of color on campus.

RAP is premised on this belief: The retention effort should be a faculty-staff-community-run initiative that signals to students of color that they belong here. RAP has arranged guest speakers, videos and, during this school year, a series of “Coffee Breaks” on diversity topics. Seema Kapani of the Equity and Diversity Resource Center assists Davis in coordinating RAP’s efforts.

“I had a personal reason to form RAP,” says Davis. “My daughter, Persia, may be an entering freshman here this fall, and I am determined to make this a better place for her by educating white students in multicultural competence. Looking at the bigger picture, RAP supports certain initiatives of Vice Chancellor Paul Barrows.”

RAP has given Davis the gift of growth. “I’ve been learning about myself through the synergy of other people’s energy, because I want to be vulnerable to their ideas,” says Davis. “For instance, I’m now looking at issues involving those with disabilities. My bond with them is that the color of my skin is a handicap. If you’re black, try catching a cab in New York or shopping unmonitored.”

His penchant for reaching out can also be seen in the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists Inc., a nonprofit organization he founded in 1994. The foundation is dedicated to musical excellence for young people, with special emphasis on providing opportunities for financially challenged families and minorities.

It does just that through an annual conference for young bassists. The seventh such conference will be held at Edgewood College April 21-22 (call 255-6666 for details) and will draw top bassists from around the country as clinicians. To encourage students to attend, the foundation offers scholarships as well as basses for a nominal rental fee.

Davis knows how crossing a passion to play the bass with a lack of cash to buy one can produce big disappointment. As a promising 19-year-old bassist, only four years after he first played the instrument, he wanted to buy a certain bass.

“I went to the seller’s home with $500 in my pocket,” he says, “but she insisted on $1,000. I walked out of her place, sat down on the curb and cried.”

Since that day Davis has been known to buy a good-but-a-bit-battered bass, get it repaired and then, one way or another, get it into the hands of a young would-be bassist.

His foundation and RAP have attracted the committed talent of many people. “If I begin painting a fence with a toothbrush,” he says, “someone will give me a paintbrush. I’ve found that others like to be part of something successful and meaningful.” And he’s always looking for new people to enlist; this month, for example, he met with a representative of Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Davis does all his special-project “painting” amid a steady stream of teaching and performing. Recently, for example, he recorded an album with singer Rickie Lee Jones, and his own new CD, titled “Homage to Diversity,” will be out April 26.

The other artists he’s recorded with form a who’s-who of jazz, pop and classical music: Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, John Lennon, Igor Stravinsky (who accorded Davis the rare tribute of walking over to him onstage at concert’s end to lay his hand on Davis’ shoulder), Dizzy Gillespie, Manhattan Transfer, and on and on. This, after all, is the man named the world’s best jazz bassist by Down Beat Magazine for six consecutive years (1967-72).

The springboard for much of his success was DuSable High School, where the music director was the legendary Walter Dyett. Many of Dyett’s students went on to become outstanding musicians, including Davis and a man named Nat King Cole.

“Walter taught me how to teach,” says Davis. “Shoot, he was still giving me reading assignments 20 years after I graduated from DuSable.” And it worked: Davis has been named by students as one of UW–Madison’s top teachers

“You know” – and here’s the theme that runs through RAP, his foundation and his teaching – “I see us as one and the same, brothers and sisters. We all have something to offer.”