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Music professor to be honored at gala

May 12, 2009

A University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Music professor will be honored with one of four awards presented at the 2009 Wisconsin History Makers Gala on Wednesday, May 27, at Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel.

Richard Davis, professor of string bass, jazz history and improvisation, has been named to receive the Spencer Tracy Award for Distinction in the Performing Arts by the Wisconsin Historical Society at its fourth annual gala. The gala recognizes “individuals who have recently made significant contributions to history in the state, across the nation or around the world.” The four 2009 recipients were chosen from more than 100 nominations made by individuals from the society’s board, staff and membership and from local historical societies.

A native of Chicago, Davis came to UW–Madison in 1977 after spending 23 years in New York City performing as a string bassist in both jazz and classical idioms. A list of those with whom he has made recordings reads like a “who’s who” of jazz and popular music luminaries: Sarah Vaughan, Dave Brubeck, Eric Dolphy, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Barbra Streisand, Eddie Daniels and Bruce Springsteen, among dozens of others. The “Downbeat” International Critics Poll named Davis “Best Bassist” from 1967-74.

As a classical bassist, Davis has performed under the baton of Igor Stravinsky, Leopold Stowkowski, Leonard Bernstein, George Szell, Gunther Schuller, Pierre Boulez and many others.

Davis’s commitment to educating the next generation of bassists goes beyond teaching music majors in the studio. In 1993, he founded the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists, which brings bass instructors and performers to Madison to work with children of limited means aged 3-18 during a spring weekend each year. His interests in improving and enhancing the climate for minority students on campus led him to form the Retention Action Project in 1998, with the main goal of educating all students toward multicultural competency. He initiated the Madison chapter of the Institutes for the Healing of Racism Inc., an eight-week series of small group sessions.

Davis has won a host of awards and honors for his work as a musician, educator and humanitarian. He received the Wisconsin Governor’s Arts award in 2001, the Urban League of Greater Madison’s Whitney B. Young Award in 2002 and honorary doctorates from VanderCook College of Music (his alma mater) in 1992 and Edgewood College in 1998. He was named a fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in 2004.

In a personal memoir for the inaugural issue of “Spectrum,” produced by Madison magazine, editorial director Neil Heinen recounts the ways his life has been enriched for more than 30 years by Davis’s influence as musician and community leader. He writes, “When I talk to him about his work, I have the sense of a powerful force of human nature, with a strength and momentum that is unstoppable. Davis has opened his home, his office, his classroom and his life to those who share his thirst for knowledge and heightened consciousness, and his mission of eradicating the social and spiritual disease of racism.”

In addition to Davis’s award, UW–Madison alumnus W. Jerome “Jerry” Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland Frautschi will receive the Jane Bradley Pettit Award for Distinction in Philanthropy at the gala.

For information on the 2009 Wisconsin History Makers Gala, contact Dianne Coopman, managing director of the Wisconsin Historical Foundation, at 608-261-1378 or e-mail