Richard Davis, one of the great virtuosos of the contrabass in jazz, turns 87 today. I had the privilege of hosting the maestro on WKCR in August 1993 — the transcript appears below. I wish we’d had a little more time, so we could have spoken more about the ’60s and ’70s, not to mention his years with Sarah Vaughan, but I’m glad to be able to share his testimony about the Chicago scene that formed him.
Richard Davis, WKCR, August 18, 1993:
TP: Richard Davis is one of the many gifted musicians who emerged out of Chicago onto the national scene in the 1960s. You’re a musician who has covered both the jazz and the classical areas. Does your orientation toward both idioms go back to your early education on the instrument in Chicago?
RD: Definitely. Because my high school teacher, Walter Dyett, Walter Henry Dyett, had that type of background himself, and he caught on a universal way. His approach was total universal . . .
TP: He was a concert violinist, I believe.
RD: A concert violinist. Also he played banjo in Erskine Tate’s band. And he played also piano. So his background himself entailed, you know, music of all types, and he encouraged and taught his students to be that way.
TP: Now, he was the music teacher at DuSable High School.
RD: DuSable High School, right.
TP: And many, many professional musicians of note, jazz soloists and people in other areas came out of there.
RD: Oh yes.
TP: Who were some of the people you heard there in your years . . . ?
RD: Okay. When you went to that school, even as a freshman, you were in awe of the people who had gone there before you in music. They were very popular and very successful, so you knew that you had some kind of shoe to fit into. Amongst them was Dinah Washington. Milt Hinton had gone to the previous DuSable . . .
TP: Phillips High, I think.
RD: He went to Wendell Phillips. And DuSable, when it was built, was I think called the New Wendell Phillips, but then they changed it to DuSable, which was a very prominent name in Chicago . . .
TP: The founder of Chicago, Jean Baptiste DuSable.
RD: Yeah, he was the first one to settle.
TP: Milt Hinton, I think, came up under Major N. Clark Smith, who had been the bandmaster at Phillips High, I believe.
RD: See, that’s information that you’re giving me that’s something new. I don’t know. But that sounds very logical. And then there was Gene Ammons, there was Johnny Griffin, there was Clifford Jordan, Joseph Jarman, Leroy Jenkins — you name them. John Gilmore. I can go on and on, and not even remembering half of them who are very prominent today. But that was the kind of thing he built, was a pure professional attitude toward the music, and his approach to the music led you to believe that anything you wanted to do was up to you.
TP: He also organized, I think, bands outside of the school, and had kids join the union and actually work as professional musicians.
RD: Oh yeah. I worked in his band.
TP: Tell me about that. What kind of material were they doing?
RD: Well, mostly the band that I worked with for him was mostly for dance, ballroom dancing. But he would play Jazz charts, and the people would dance because it was a big band. I worked with another band around there, too. Eddie King had a band of that same type. But Walter Dyett’s band I worked in, and . . .
Walter Dyett never left the teaching podium. I mean, when you were around him, you just sat and listened, because you knew you were going to grab something that would be meaningful for the rest of your life. Even after I left high school, I mean for the next 20 years . . . Let’s see. He died, I think, in 1968; I graduated from high school in ’48. For the next 20 years I was learning things from him. He was visiting New York. You’d see him anywhere. And he was always telling you something that was directed toward a positive attitude toward what you what you were wanting to accomplish on your instrument. He would have us sit down in the band room for twenty minutes without even touching our instrument, and we would talk about things that we wanted to get accomplished. Mind power, he called it. It was fantastic.
TP: Did he select you to be a bass player, or were you playing bass when you entered as a freshman?
RD: No, no. I asked him could I study bass with him.
TP: What was the fascination for you? Why did you want to be a bass player?
RD: Well, my dearest friend at the time, Ernest Jones, was in the band. And every day we would walk home together, because he lived in the same direction that I lived in, and he’d tell me about all these things that he was doing in the band room, about counting bars and rests, and recognizing this . . . And I used to stand over him while he was practicing at home, just to watch what he was doing. And I said, “I’ve got to get into this.” And I was always fascinated by the bass anyway. So I just went up to the band room and asked could I get in.
TP: Did you have the opportunity to listen to records when you were a kid . . . ?
TP: . . . or see bands around Chicago? I mean, there was so much music around Chicago in the 1930s or 1940s.
RD: Well, see, there wasn’t any television. You know, you couldn’t sit at home and get all this. So what you’d do, you’d go . . . In my case, it was only four blocks from me. I would go to the Regal Theatre. And every band you want to mention would come into the Regal Theatre, and you saw them live. And you could stay in there for as long as you could stay in there. Because you’d just pay one admission there, and you’d stay around the clock if you could afford the time.
TP: And did you sometimes?
RD: Oh yeah! And then you . . .
TP: Who did you go to see?
RD: Well, all the great bands. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jay McShann, Lucky Millinder — just any band that you could mention was in that theatre.
TP: Did you have a chance, say, to see Jimmy Blanton?
RD: Well, it’s funny you mention that. Because he died in 1942, and I was 12 years old at the time. Now, it’s possible I heard him, but I really can’t recall. There were some older friends I had at that time who would take me to their homes and listen to records. In particular there was Karl Byrom that I would hang out with. He was in school at an older age than the normal high school student, because he had TB and he could never finish the term, so he was delayed. Which was to my benefit, because he kind of took me under his wing, and played all these fantastic records he had at home with Oscar Pettiford, Milton Hinton, Jimmy Blanton, you know.
TP: And these were the people who initially inspired you as a bassist.
RD: Oh yeah. It was a congregation of good feelings. Because you’d just sit there and listen to these older musicians play. I remember . . . I was a freshman when Johnny Griffin was a senior, and I remember watching him on the football field playing a clarinet, you know, in the marching band and stuff like that. And I remember Lionel Hampton heard him at what we called a booster concert, you know, to start off with the football season, and the jazz band would play, the school jazz band — and Lionel Hampton was the guest artist. And he heard . . . Johnny Griffin stood up and took a solo, and that was it. He took him right out of there. “Hey, you’re the one.”
TP: Now, you’re the generation that came under the sway of bebop, and you were a teenager when those records were coming out. I remember Clifford Jordan telling me about hearing “Red Cross,” I think . . .
TP: He didn’t know it was “Red Cross,” and then he found it out — but that really just took him all the way in that direction. Did records like that have a big impact on you?
RD: Yeah, well, I hated it when I first heard it. Because I was just beginning to learn how to play boogie-woogie bass lines, and things of the swing era, you know, learning tunes off of records, and here comes Charlie Parker — I said, “God!” But it was lucky for me that it came at that time, because it caused me to develop. I remember playing a 78 record over and over again of “My Old Flame,” trying to find out what Tommy Potter was doing with the bass line.
TP: Were you listening to the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band with Ray Brown . . . ?
RD: Yeah! And Charlie Mingus. Listened to the whole thing.
RD: I mean, it got so that once I got involved, knowing I wanted to do that, which was from day one, I started going back and reading all of the old jazz magazines, doing research on the roots of the music I was wanting to play. And I started listening to, you know, an enormous collection of music, go to everybody’s house and exchange records. And I remember those Jimmy Blanton records I took from my friend’s house and went to a recording studio and had them copied from one disk to another. I still have those.
TP: Now, I recollect reading a profile of you in Down Beat from maybe 25 years ago where you talked about playing the Calumet City circuit . . .
RD: Heh . . . Yeah!
TP: . . . and doing all these gigs in Chicago after high school . . . It’s just such a full range of experience you’d get in Chicago. It sounds like you were doing your classical training . . .
TP: . . . and playing blues and boogie-woogie gigs, and bebop gigs, and jump bands and the whole thing.
TP: Is that how it was in Chicago?
RD: Yeah. Chicago was wide-open. I mean, you could go to jam sessions, like, five or six o’clock in the morning. That’s when they started, breakfast jam sessions. That’s when I met the great Ike Day and Wilbur Ware, playing at these sessions. So you had all that music just flowing around you. It was just wide open.
I should go back and say that my mother also had brought in records from New Orleans. I had records made in 1904 of, you know, different people who had recorded on RCA-Victor. And she was, of course, a contemporary of Louis Armstrong. They were born the same year.
TP: Is she from New Orleans?
RD: Yes. She was from Homewood, Louisiana, which was right outside of New Orleans.
So then you’d have all this exposure! You’d go to the Club DeLisa and hear big bands, shows, everything. You’d hear vocalists, Joe Williams, everything. Then, of course, you would jam with your friends. You’d go to each other’s house, you know . . . I was just looking over some old pictures of mine, because I had to do that to send off for some promo, and I saw a picture (and I’d forgotten I had it) of Sun Ra, Jimmy Ellis, a guy named Charles Hines and myself, right in my house rehearsing.
TP: You’ve mentioned a few names in the last couple of minutes who I’d like you to comment on. The first is Wilbur Ware, who really held sway over all the bassists in Chicago at that particular time, I think.
RD: Yeah, he was the king. He was the king. But the guy I really admired, and thought that he was really the king, because I knew him personally and hung out with him a lot, was Karl Byrom. Now, he was the all-around bassist, very talented. It’s just that his health just didn’t allow him to emerge into, you know, the atmosphere of getting to New York. It reminded me . . . It was almost as if I had my own Jimmy Blanton right in my own high school.
TP: He was that strong.
RD: Oh, he was strong. And all the recordings that Jimmy Blanton made, he knew them note for note, Slam Stewart note for note — and he had his own particular way of doing things. And I just loved him.
TP: Another bassist who was in Chicago a lot at that time, and one of the great masters, was Israel Crosby.
RD: Israel Crosby was another one. Ooh! See, we had all these great bass players around to listen to. Like Eddie Calhoun. Eddie Calhoun was the first one to show me something about the middle part of a tune, that’s called a bridge, and the “Rhythm” changes. And I grasped it very fast, because I already knew triads and chords. And he told me that, and I said, “Man, it. . .” Eddie Calhoun was the first person to order a drink for me in a nightclub. He was with Ahmad Jamal. Because I had gotten to legal age. And he said, “You want a drink?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “What do you drink?” I said, “I don’t know what to drink.” I’ll never forget it, he ordered a burgundy with a ginger ale! [Laughs]
But Eddie Calhoun was a fantastic player. You had Israel Crosby, you had Wilbur Ware, and there was another bass player — I can’t think of his name at the moment. Oh, what was his name? A very short guy.
TP: Leroy Jackson?
RD: No. There was Wilbur Edmonson(?) there, too. He was phenomenal.
TP: We’ll call it to mind in a moment, I’m sure, probably when we’re doing something entirely different. You also mentioned the name of Ike Day, who has recorded I think one session, and you can hardly hear him, so any time I have someone up here who heard him in the flesh I ask them what he sounded like.
RD: Well, let’s see. At the time I heard him, I don’t think I was mature enough to analyze and say what it is that you want me to talk about. But I was fascinated, because I saw this very small, skinny guy approach the drums, while I was playing, and when he started to play it was like a football field. Every person in the audience started saying “Ike Day, Ike Day, Ike Day.” And I looked around, and I got very nervous, because then I knew who it was. And then Wilbur Ware came up with his bass, and we played together, two basses and Ike Day and whoever was in the front line. But I can only estimate that his contemporaries being Max Roach and any other drummer along that line of time. . . I heard that they all . . . when they came to Chicago, that’s where they made tracks to, was to hear Ike Day.
TP: You mentioned Sun Ra as well, and a picture of him in your house. That period of his career has been talked about and written about, but again we haven’t really heard it. Can you talk about what Sun Ra was doing in 1950, ’52 . . . ?
RD: Oh yeah! Well, thank the Lord that he was around. Because I learned a lot from him about not only just music, but about life. And at that time, his name was Sunny Blount. It all goes back to a period in my life where I needed to hear a concept of someone who was individualistic, as he was, who was dynamic in their resolve philosophies; you know, philosophies that I think had been tested by him already. And it was during this period where they wanted to take me into the Korean War and all that crap that I had never heard about. I had never heard the word “Korean” or “Korea” before the war started, and I didn’t think it was my business, heh-heh, to be involved. But Sun Ra was definitely the person to put a cap on that, to tell you philosophically what was happening in the world.
And I remember the first time I met him, the first thing he said to me . . . He said, “I don’t think you’re ready to go to the Moon yet.” That’s the first thing he said to me. And I listened . . . As a matter of fact, I’m going to have some tapes transcribed that I interviewed him when I worked with him in Paris, oh, maybe ten years ago. I have a lot of things that he talked on tape, maybe three hours of it, you know. But that’s one of the projects that I have in mind to get done for historical-archival things that just should be documented, you know. Because his thoughts were just dynamic.
And I had never heard a person talk like him before. My father also was a great talker and a spiritual guider. But then this was a contemporary in the sense of recent thoughts that he penetrated through. That’s why so many people stayed with him, because he was the man.
TP: But he was running rehearsal bands, even at that time, with many of the top young musicians in Chicago (yes?) in the late ’40s , early ’50s?
RD: Well, I don’t know. You can verify that yourself. But my association with him was that he would have meetings every Sunday at his house, talking. And then, if we had a gig, then we’d have a rehearsal for a gig. And I’ll never forget him saying . . . There was a tune I didn’t know that was a very popular standard, and he said, “You should have known that eons of years ago.” He said, “We have to advance towards some other aspect of tunes.” And when he said that to me, with the respect I had for him, I started learning more and more and more tunes as fast as I could, because I came to play with him — I knew I had to perform. It was him I worked with in Calumet City. You mentioned that word; I worked with him in Calumet City.
TP: What was the band? Do you recollect?
RD: I just remember Sun Ra and the drummer. See, a band . . . It was a burlesque house in Calumet City. The bumps and grinds of females, you know. They usually would hire a piano, trumpet and drums, just enough to make it a band. And of course, the musicians are used to playing with a bass player, so they would all chip in ten dollars of their fee, and hire a bass player. And I was a bass player in that particular group. I was going to college at that time, getting off at 4 o’clock in the morning and I had to be in school at 8, you know. But it was nothing, because I was with Sun Ra and, you know, learning a lot of things.
If you want to, I can tell you a beautiful story about my impressions of him at that time.
RD: While . . . See, there was kind of a screen between us and the dancer. We could see her through a veiled curtain of some type, so that the drummer would catch the bumps and things like that. And we arrived back together back and forth to work from Chicago to Calumet City. And one of the waitresses used to ride in the car with us, and we met a couple of the dancers that way, too.
But the thing that impressed me about Sun Ra was that for the whole time . . . This was like you call a factory job. He would be reading a paperback book for the whole time he was playing, and he’d turn the pages, you know, and play and never missed a beat, turning the pages and reading. I said, “This guy is phenomenal.” I can do that now. I can do two or three things at once, and do them quite well.
But the thing is, he looked over at me and he said, “See the guy over there who’s drunk?” I said, “Yeah.” There was a guy laying on a booth, who had probably seen the show more than once or twice, but he was drunk — I mean, he was actually very drunk. As the expression goes, he was pissy drunk. And he said, “Watch me sober him up.” And I watched . . . And we were playing “Body and Soul.” Then Sun Ra started going further and further out with the chords, and I was watching his left hand to see what he was doing . . . He wasn’t playing any louder than he had been playing before, because it was all background music. And sure enough, this guy must have been about 50 feet away from us, and he stirred . . . and within three minutes he was standing straight up as if he was a soldier standing at attention. And then Sun Ra looked at me kind of with that little grin he had; he just looked at me and said, “See?” [Laughs] And I said, “What else do you do?”
TP: It sounds like a very impressive moment in the annals of music!
TP: We’re speaking with Richard Davis on “Out To Lunch” on WKCR-FM, New York, 89.9, Ted Panken here, and Richard Davis and Friends are appearing at Sweet Basil this week, through Sunday. It seems to me we’ve been talking a while, and should get to some music. But since we’re talking about Chicago, maybe we can do the bridge this way and talk about . . .
RD: Bill Lee?
TP: Well, how you wound up . . . Well, Bill Lee, but also I guess the events that led to you coming to New York, and I guess leaving with Sarah Vaughan. . .
RD: That’s a funny one. Okay.
TP: . . . was your path away from Chicago.
RD: That’s a funny one. I can tell you about that.
TP: Well, Richard Davis, you worked with Sarah Vaughan’s group, I guess, for five years, was it . . . ?
TP: From ’57 to ’62. And this really introduced you to the broader audience and to musicians all over.
RD: Mmm-hmm, yeah.
TP: So that’s the prologue to what Richard Davis will say, I guess.
RD: Do you want to play music first, or . . . Should we talk now?
TP: Well, let’s play some music. Tell us about the piece we’re about to hear, and then we’ll resume the interview.
RD: All right. It relates to Bill Lee. Bill Lee, in my estimation, formed the first two-bass combo group — to my knowledge. And I think this was 1969. I was playing the melody bass (it was my actual date; I was the leader on the date), and he played supporting bass. Bill had a . . . His melodic and harmonic concept was just powerful. He employed Chick Corea on the piano and Sam Brown on guitar, Sonny Brown on drums (where is he nowadays?), and Frankie Dunlop on percussion. I think I told Bill that I liked the melody to “Dear Old Stockholm.” That was all I said to him. And he came up with this arrangement on “Dear Old Stockholm.”
This session was reissued two or three times, as called With Understanding, and then it was released under another name with Chick Corea as a leader! I think that the company probably thought that his name would help them in the sales. I’m assuming this.
TP: In your group, usually everybody writes and you incorporate a number of your compositions, but the compositions from various members of the group as well. At least in the past that’s been the case.
RD: Right. I encourage that to happen. I think it’s a good idea to have people do their thing. I think it’s good for morale boosting, and the quality of the music has different attitudes because of different composers.
TP: We were speaking before, in a lengthy interview segment, about your formative years and coming to maturity as a musician in some sense in Chicago, playing at various joints in and around Chicago, with various policies, and you were in school studying the classical bass, and really covering a whole range of musical styles. You emerged from Chicago, I believe, with Sarah Vaughan — or perhaps it was before that. Were you in the ’50s traveling outside of Chicago with your contemporaries? If so, who were some of them?
RD: I did a lot of jobs with Harold Ousley around Chicago, playing cabaret parties, they called them, where you’d bring your own whiskey, and people would give you a set-up, or something similar to that. I didn’t understand exactly what it was, because I wasn’t into drinking, so I never, you know, found out what cabaret really meant in that sense.
But I gigged around with lots of people, John Neely and a lot of my peers in high school . . . But the first time I got which was more than local, in a sense, was a guy who lived in Chicago at the time, who had come from Pittsburgh — that was Ahmad Jamal. And that was the first job I got that had that kind of . . .
TP: When were you part of his group?
RD: This must have been 1952.
TP: So it was in the early group before he started using a drummer? Was that in the guitar-bass phase of the group?
RD: Yeah. He had Eddie Calhoun . . .
TP: He had Ray Crawford on guitar?
RD: Yeah. Ray Crawford on guitar, and then there was another guy on the guitar — I can’t remember his name now either! Then there was Ahmad, and I was playing bass, of course. Ahmad had a tune which required me to play maraca while I was playing the bass; I had to learn to do that with him, so he’d get this effect. And then Ray Crawford would thump on the strings and make it sound like a conga drum. It was a fantastic thing. And Ahmad had a sound and a concept that was just unbelievable. And of course, he attracted all of the guys coming in traveling to the club to hear him play, and it was always jam-packed. It was the first time I was with what you might call a consistent professional successful group.
TP: Was he working steadily with, like, several-week engagements at a time? And what clubs was he playing in Chicago?
RD: He would work at the Pershing Lounge, which was in the Pershing Hotel, oh, six weeks at a time, or more even.
TP: There were several levels to that club, weren’t there? There were like two or three different venues within that hotel . . .
RD: Well, the ballroom. See, the ballroom is where all the great traveling artists would come through. Like Lester Young; I remember seeing Lester Young. And several people would come. Charlie Parker . . . They’d all work in the ballroom. And the lounge was the place . . . I think that’s when first heard Eddie South, the violinist. I can’t remember all the groups that worked there, but I remember being there with Ahmad. And it was a classy kind of a joint. You know, there was a nice stage presentation, a lot of room on the stage, storage of the instruments — you know, it was very pleasant.
TP: Good piano.
RD: Good piano, yeah. And Ahmad . . . It was a good thing for me to be with Ahmad. The one thing I’ll never forget him telling me at a rehearsal, he said, “Who is your favorite piano player?” And I said, “Oscar Peterson.” You know, who else? And he said, “You want to know who my favorite bass player is?” I said, “Tell me.” I thought he was going to say Ray Brown or somebody. He said, “You are.” I said, “Me?” He said, “Yeah, because you’re here with me.” I said, “God, what a lesson!” I was the number-one bass player for him because he was confronted me being with him. That was a real booster.
But then after that, in 1952 . . . or was it ’54 . . . Yeah, in 1954, I was approached by this bass player, Johnny Pate, whose son is Don Pate. And I knew Johnny Pate; he was a helluva bass player, you know, and I used to hear him on different jobs around town, and Johnny Frigo was around, too . . . He said, “Do you want to go to New York with this guy I’m working with?” And I said, “New York? Yeah!” And he said, “Well, I’m getting ready to leave this guy because I don’t want to go to New York, and I told him about you, because I thought you were the one qualified to play what he wants out of a bass player. I said, “Well, thank you.” So I went and auditioned for the guy, and he liked it, and he said, “Okay, we’re leaving at such-and-such a time” and all that stuff, you know . . .
And man, I got the New York jitters after that! I said, “New York!” You hear about New York and all these great musicians there . . . And what happened is that we exchanged jobs. He went with Ahmad and I went with Don Shirley. But my job didn’t start until we got to New York, and I think we were going to exchange jobs at an appropriate time. But just before I supposed to leave for New York, I went to him and I said, “Look, man, I want my job back. I’m not going to New York. I was frightened half to death.” For some reason I was at the Blue Note; I can’t remember what for, but . . .
TP: The Chicago Blue Note on the North Side.
RD: Yes. I remember being there in the daytime, and Sarah Vaughan was beginning to rehearse there. But her bass player was there; Beverly Peer, I think was his name. And he was working with Sarah Vaughan, and I was asking him about New York, and I knew Sarah Vaughan was going to come to that club and rehearse, you know . . . That was frightening me to death, man.
So then, Johnny Pate said, “Look, man, you can’t have your job back. You belong in New York, and that’s where you’re going to go.” I don’t know what made him say that, but it was the best thing for me . . . heh-heh . . .
TP: But it seems to me that Chicago would be the ultimate preparation for going to New York and dealing with the music, just considering all the types of experiences you could have. I presume you were sitting in with the people when they were coming through town and doing these types of gigs . . .
RD: You’re right! You’re right. I mean, some of the experiences I had in Chicago, you wouldn’t believe. You know, I learned a lot from another saxophone player who taught me a lot of . . . You know, people would teach you in Chicago, as for your grounds. But still it’s frightening. Even leaving Chicago to go to New York is frightening. And I just didn’t want to go. I got nervous. And he said, “You’ve got to go.” And he wouldn’t give me my job back, so I had to go!
TP: What was it like working with Sarah Vaughan for those years? One thing that I think probably gets lost to the general audience is the level of her musicianship. I’ve heard a story that she was on a tour with a number of musicians, including Nat Cole in 1952 or so, and Nat Cole couldn’t make it, couldn’t make a night, or he was sick . . .
TP: So she came out and sing his whole thing and played all of the piano parts.
RD: That sounds like her! Like Shirley Horn today. Boy, that sounds like her.
But the thing about . . . See, Roy Haynes used to come through Chicago, and I met him — and he was working with Sarah Vaughan at the time. And he and I kind of pal-ed off right away. And it’s possible that he was the one who recommended me. I never knew that for a fact, but looking back, I think that’s what happened. But I went to do the job with her, and man, I was too frightened to play. And the first two or three nights playing with Jimmy Jones and Roy Haynes and Sarah Vaughan on the stage . . . I just kind of just. . . I was tip-toein’ through the tulips, just making little announcements out of the bass and all that kind of stuff. And then I looked around and said, “Hey! They must have called me here for a reason.” And so I said, pardon the expression, but I said, “Hey! I’m gonna just play. What the . . . ” — you know. And then I started opening up, and started playing. And right away, I noticed they started looking back and saying, “Oh, he’s opening up now.” But it took me two or three nights before I could really relax and really begin to play.
TP: Were you based in New York while you were working with Sarah Vaughan?
RD: Yeah, I moved to New York, and they called me. I went to New York with Don Shirley. That’s the guy whose job took me to New York. And I stayed with him for two years, I guess to 1956, and between ’56 and ’57 I was just gigging around, taking any little gig I could get, and then I got a call from Sarah Vaughan’s office in 1957.
TP: I guess the series of recordings that really started to put your name internationally on the map, where you could begin to express your creativity as a musician and so forth begins in the early 1960s with a series of recordings for both Blue Note and Prestige . . .
RD: Right. Because after I decided to leave Sarah, after five years, the first person I ran into with a prominent gig was Eric Dolphy, heh-heh. . .right in the subway station. And he said, “What are you doing next week?” I said, “Nothing.” And he said, “Why don’t you go down to the Five Spot with me?
RD: Yeah. And that was it! I said, “Man, oh God, what a way to come into New York.
TP: You did some very famous duets with Eric Dolphy where he played bass clarinet and you on bass, the Douglas sessions.
TP: A few words about him, and then we’ll get back to some more music by your current group.
RD: Well, I think that first session was supposed to have been under my name. I can’t remember whether it was or not. Not that it really matters. But [engineer/proucer Alan] Douglas, who I had done a lot of folk music with, I was playing a lot of folk music, folk singers and things . . . . He said, “If you were going in the studio to play a duet, who would you choose? Who would you want to play with?” I said “Eric Dolphy.” And that was the beginning.
TP: Where did you first meet him?
RD: On the subway!
TP: Oh, that was it? You hadn’t known him before?
RD: I don’t think so! [Laughs] Maybe he knew who I was. But when I saw him, to be honest with you, I couldn’t tell whether he was Eric Dolphy or Ornette Coleman. Because I think they both wore goatees at that time.
TP: Well, you and Eric Dolphy were part of a very famous date which is at the top of the stack right next to me, called Point of Departure by Andrew Hill, one of four or five recordings you did with Andrew Hill then . . .
TP: This was such a creative period. You were on Bobby Hutcherson and Andrew Hill records, really extending the form, and there’s a real sense of speculation and searching in these records.
TP: Can you talk a little bit about the attitude that was behind the making of them?
RD: You mean as far as my contribution as a bass player?
TP: Your contribution and the overall spirit of the groups and the musicians.
RD: Well, first of all, you had a company that really organized these sessions, like Alfred Lion and those guys. They really rehearsed, they paid you for a rehearsal, the rehearsal was set up in the studio, you went over what you were going to do, who was going to solo, and the tunes and all that. And I remember Alfred Lion always eating chocolates, and he always gave me some, because I liked that . . . ! But then his friend, Francis Woolf, he was always taking pictures. So it was a great organization of a type. These guys were dedicated to the music.
And on this date also was Kenny Dorham. Now, Kenny Dorham, I worked a lot with him in clubs in New York. And I just loved Kenny Dorham. He was slick. He used to call me the Fox, because he thought I was kind of extra. . .
TP: Well, then he wrote a tune after you, didn’t he, on Trompeta Toccata! That’s you!
RD: I don’t know whether he related it to me exactly on that tune, but he called me the Fox. And Eric called me the Iron Man, and he wrote a tune called “Iron Man.” Because he thought I had endless energy — which I do. And he said, “Man, one day I’m going to be like you; I’m going to be as busy as you are and be able to . . . ” A lot of people thought I was using dope to do all of the things I was doing!
Of course, that’s always applied to musicians anyway if they’re doing something that is beyond the ordinary. Even Eric Dolphy, with his performance ability . . . I remember a guy running backstage when we were at Birdland one night, and he said, “Where is he?! Where is he?!” He was all excited. And he says, “Does he use dope?” Man, Eric Dolphy was so far removed from dope. . . He was just high on the music, all the time. The music was so tremendous.
And Kenny Dorham had this very, very professional approach to his writing and to his sound. He was a guy who I had heard when I was just learning how to play the bass! And for me to be on the stage with him, it felt so good. And then there was Joe Henderson, with that unique sound and concept that he plays with . . . Man, I was in heaven. And there’s a young Tony Williams from that date.
TP: We don’t even have it cued up. Would you like me to put something on from it?
TP: Which one?
RD: I wouldn’t know what to select, because I haven’t heard this in years. You probably have heard it more recently than I have.
TP: Maybe so. How about “New Monastery”?
RD: Okay. Whatever you say, doctor.
TP: You’re the doctor . . . By the way, are you a Doctor in Music. You do teach at Madison.
RD: Well, I do have a doctorate. I have what is called an honorary doctorate in music. I am a Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison camps.
TP: Your curriculum at University of Wisconsin and the band . . . Is there an enthusiastic turnout for the jazz history course that you teach? Is it well- received, well- attended? What’s your impression of the students at this point?
RD: Well, the class usually closes out in the first day of registration, which means there are four days when students are still trying to get in and wanting to be on a waiting list — which I don’t encourage. Because I want a nice, intimate, smaller group of people. And I try to limit it to 85, but it normally creeps up to about 110. And it’s an auditorium which seats 200, so it’s comfortable for everybody. And I see students all over the country who have been in that class, and they come to see me when I’m in their town. Like, I was in L.A. last week, and I saw about six or seven students who had been in the class, and here in New York I saw three or four last night, the first night.
But it’s been a good experience for me also to enhance my continued growth and knowledge about the traditional jazz heritage. It has given me lots of reasons to read more global things, because I relate them back to the situation with jazz and how it fits into our society — things like that.
TP: What’s your approach to the curriculum? Do you cover it chronologically from the beginnings up to the modern?
RD: The way I handle that, to keep from being bored (which I dread that feeling), is that . . . At first it was like 1920’s to present, general history. What I did, I broke it down into four categories. One semester you have saxophones, concentrated on that. Then the next semester, trumpet players. The next semester, vocalists, miscellaneous instruments and trombones. And the next semester you have rhythm sections and combos. I don’t do the big band, because another professor does that; he’s the band director, concert band and marching band — and he does big band things.
But what I do is concentrate on making the student know a particular personality who is innovative in the role of how the music developed between the 1920s and the present. I talk about the social stimuli, economic conditions, and other things related to the music being produced the way it is produced. One of my favorite subjects, generally speaking, in the music (and I just received a grant for that) is jazz protest songs and experience in the 20th Century.
TP: One last question before we get to the final piece of music is your sense of the way the music is being produced today and the conditions under which it’s being produced. Particularly the kind of repertory approach to jazz amongst many of the young musicians. Just generally, what’s your sense of the attitude to music by the younger musicians who will be the future of the music that you’re aware of?
RD: If I’m understanding your question correctly . . . This might be something that does not answer that question per se . . .
TP: It may not be a clear question, too.
RD: Yeah. I’ll just give you kind of a capsule conception of what I’m seeing today with the younger musicians. I see them as the next generation to what’s happened before them, and the ones that I’ve met . . . Javon Jackson, I just spent a week with him in the band in California. First of all, it was great to see the personality that he has, which is dynamic. I mean, he asked me if he was my son! And I was honored. Because he’s not my son, but when you see the next generation coming up, you look at it in the same sense of the Son of the Music — the next generation. And his talent, to my estimation, is very strong, and his attitude towards honoring the music is just tremendous.
I also have a godson, Eric McPherson, who plays with Jackie McLean on the drums. I was there in the hospital the day he was born, just taking his mother to the hospital. And to watch him come up and watch his attitude as a gentleman, first of all, and a kind person . . . You know, we used to just go out for McDonald’s hamburgers and go to movies, just to keep an association when I’d come to New York, and then he starts playing drums, and he’d come to the club every night, and he’d sit there and sip on that Coca-Cola, and he was listening to Freddie Waits and any drummer that I had with me at the time (Billy Hart), and he started studying drums . . . And now to see him actually playing professionally, it tells me that the music is honorable, because the next generation deems it necessary to want to play it — and the challenge of trying to play it is very demanding. He got a scholarship to go and study with Jackie McLean. And I can mention his friend, Abe, alto saxophone . . . He sat in with me once because our saxophonist didn’t show up, and he really roused the audience . . .
TP: There’s some amazing talent out there.
RD: Amazing, amazing talent out there. And I can name quite a few guys that I have heard and have heard of, you know, through recordings and whatever you want to talk about, that tells me that hopefully we’ve handed the baton, and we have handed it to the right person.
Plus, the other thing that is so phenomenal is that their business attitude is quite different than ours was. They have nice, prominent young lawyers representing them, like Terence Blanchard . . . I worked with him on that memorial thing for Eric Dolphy. He had a bright young lawyer right there talking in his behalf, and the guy was in his mid 20s, if that old, but he was very, very polished!
Whereas some of the older guys in our generation had all this talent and equipment with writing and playing, but never really quite handled the business well enough to escape the plantation. You see what I mean? Because it was almost like saying, “I’m glad to get what I can get.” But these guys now know that they have something that’s marketable, not in the sense of a Michael Jackson recording . . . But whatever it is that people are buying from them, they are selling it with more intelligent attitudes.
TP: I guess we can safely say that you feel good about the future of the music.
RD: Oh, I feel good about it.
TP: And you continue to be part of the future of the music.
RD: Oh yeah!
TP: As is evident to anyone who will go down to hear Richard Davis and Friends this week at Sweet Basil.
TP: We’ll conclude with something from a recording from 1987 that’s a dedication to your daughter . . .
RD: “Persia.” That’s my heart right there . .