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All About That Bass

One of the best bassists in the world was convinced to come to teach at the UW in 1977, and never left.

Richard Davis

It was 1974, and Peter Dominguez ’80 MM’82 had a problem.

He’d come from a Milwaukee family full of diverse and versatile musicians to study double bass at UW–Madison. Some faculty were pushing him to choose between classical music or jazz — a choice he didn’t really want to make.

He went to see Jimmy Cheatham, the famous trombonist who was teaching jazz at the UW at the time. Cheatham affirmed Dominguez’s suspicion that he didn’t really have to choose — and pulled out an album to prove it: Philosophy of the Spiritual, the 1971 record by Richard Davis, one of the most sought-after and well-known bassists in New York over the previous 20 years.

“That blew my mind,” Dominguez remembers. “That record didn’t leave my turntable for weeks. I stared at Richard, I read everything about him. I did a deep dive on Richard Davis.”

By then, UW officials had already been courting Davis to come to Madison to teach.

“They kept calling me to come here,” says Davis, now 89 and retired. “I finally said okay. I had never heard of Madison.”

Madison was surely a far cry from the two cities Davis had called home to that point — Chicago and New York.

“I was surrounded by music and musicians in my neighborhood, my high school, everything,” Davis says of his upbringing. He attended DuSable High School on Chicago’s South Side, where Walter Dyett was music director. Dyett’s program was unusually prolific in producing professional musicians, including Bo Diddley, Dinah Washington, Leroy Jenkins, Nat King Cole, and others. In that program, at age 15, Davis first picked up the bass — and that was it.

“Soon as I started playing, I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” he says.

During high school he performed with the Youth Orchestra of Greater Chicago and went on to study at VanderCook College of Music. And then it was off to New York.

“To prove yourself in those days, you had to go to New York,” he says. “That was the ground of approval.”

And prove himself he did, becoming one of the best-known and most in-demand studio and performance bassists in the world. He recorded with folk, jazz, and rock artists from Miles Davis to Van Morrison to Bruce Springsteen, and he also performed under Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, and many others.

“I’ve done some great things,” Davis says. “I’ve had some phenomenal associations with some great composers, conductors, colleagues, and the whole bit. That’s why you go to New York.”

But after 23 years in the studio and on stage, it was time to do something different.

“I felt it was time to spread my knowledge to the young folks,” he says, and he gave in to those who’d been asking him to come teach at the UW in this little town he’d never really heard of.

What were his first impressions?

“I should be careful what I say,” he says with a gravelly chuckle. “It was kind of laid back and slow. Different rhythm. I had to regroup and lessen my expectancy. [The students] didn’t know anything. They didn’t know about jazz. They never answered any questions I asked them. They didn’t know anything.”

Dominguez, for one, couldn’t have been more thrilled.

“I got my head blown off by his playing, and then in two years he’s my teacher. Whoa,” Dominguez says. “I always said my pot of gold landed on me in Madison. It was absolutely the most incredible thing [that] happened to me. It was unbelievable. I think I probably took lessons with him for at least a year while I was in total shock and awe.”

Dominquez especially remembers watching the 1978 Academy Awards on TV and seeing Davis in the pit orchestra.

“We just had a lesson, ’cause you had a lesson a couple of days ago, and I’m seeing him on TV,” Dominguez remembers, the awe still evident in his voice all these years later.

Dominguez went on to earn his doctoral degree and began a teaching career alongside his own performance career -—- he’s now a professor of bass and jazz studies at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. He has noted that bassists coming in to college were not as well prepared as students of other instruments.

“Especially the violinists and pianists just come in with more repertoire and more command of their instruments,” Dominguez says.

So he helped Davis launch the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists, an independent nonprofit organization that hosts an annual conference where young bass players, ages three to 18, can learn from and perform with masters from around the country. Dominguez will be in Madison this coming spring for the 27th edition of the conference, which — true to Davis’s all-around musicianship ethic — allows students to explore multiple musical styles.

Around the same time that nonprofit was getting started, Davis started another effort to solve another, bigger problem — racism in liberal Madison.

“People say Madison is very liberal. It’s not,” Davis says. “I saw a need for change.”

He heard a radio show about racial healing classes and thought it was a good idea. He got some training himself and ran a weekly class for more than 25 years.

He says things have changed a bit, noting especially that the UW’s Mead Witter School of Music has more faculty of color. But that’s not enough.

“Still racism going on,” he says. “I keep in touch with people [on campus], and they tell me what’s happening and what’s not happening.”

But he also knows quick change was never a realistic goal.

“When I first came here 40 years ago, in ’77, I met people who had come here 20 years before I got here, and they said nothing had changed since they were there,” he says. “Racism is not an easy thing to wipe out. It perpetuates itself all the time. School systems remain the same, administration remains the same. You don’t see changes that are rapid.”

So you just have to be patient?

“You can be patient all you want to,” he says with a chuckle. “That isn’t gonna do anything either. But you have no other choice.”

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