Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Philosophy of the Spiritual an Interview with Bassist Richard Davis Part 1 of 3

Richard Davis photo by John Abbott
The rich and  resonant sound of Richard Davis' bass has been around for the better part of sixty years. Now at age eighty four he spends most of his time as an educator of euro-classical bass at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he had been teaching since he left New York back in 1977. He was at the epicenter of the movement from bebop to hard bop and onto free jazz explorations that occurred throughout the sixties and into the seventies. His discography spans major work with Sarah Vaughan, Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, Elvin Jones and Jaki Byard to name a few and  his in demand studio work has been an essential part of seminal works by  mainstream artists like Laura Nyro, Janis Ian, Barbara Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Van Morrison. It was a rare treat to spend two sessions speaking to Mr. Davis via telephone from his home in Madison, Wisconsin on August 8th and again on August 20th of this year.

Our conversations discussed our mutual fascination with life of the Ellington bassist Jimmie Blanton, Davis'
career and the people he played with in both the jazz and classical bass worlds, his recollections of some of his predecessors on the bass, his take on the future, his experiences as an educator, his social activism and a lengthy discussion on his perspective on race in this country. 

NOJ: First let me say thank you for taking out the time to speak with me. I have been a fan of your music ever since I listened to your album “Philosophy of the Spiritual” when I was in my early twenties.

RD: You were in your early twenties when you heard it?

NOJ: Yes. It was very profound for me. I had never heard a bass being bowed like that in the jazz format. I came to really love jazz after that and that album dove me into it deeper and deeper. I later came to know about arco bass playing by people like Blanton and Pettiford and others.  I especially was moved by your rendition of “Dear Old Stockholm,” which you did so heart wrenchingly well. This was my first exposure to the bass as a solo instrument of such great empathetic power. It was very moving.

RD: Thank you so much.

NOJ: I guess our communication started with me sending you my essay on the Duke Ellington bassist Jimmie Blanton. You responded kindly and here we are.

RD: Oh Yeah.

NOJ: I was really intrigued by Blanton’s life. I heard you on an interview with Ben Sidran from 2008 that you had Blanton’s bass at the University( of Wisconsin, Madison). How did you get it and is it still there and is it still with you and is it still being used?

RD; See, the bass player who took that bass over after Blanton, and he also played with Duke Ellington, was his cousin Wendell Marshall. He had the bass .So when he was no longer playing I asked him if I could at least take care of it. I didn’t want to buy it, because it had been handled, but I said, I’d like to take care of it.  When he divorced his wife he had left it at home in his basement and I wanted to protect it and he agreed.  I kept it for many, many years, but he finally took it back. Wendel died but one of the student/ teachers in my foundation found the bass, found it somewhere and knows where it is.

NOJ: Interesting. When I did research for my Blanton essay, I found some references to the fact that he may have started out playing in the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra with a three stringed bass. Do you know anything about that?

RD: That’s questionable, because some people said that he recorded with Jeter-Pillars, but it has been found out that he did not.  One of my students, who did a lot of research, found out that he never recorded with that band.  I know from his sister, (Gertrude Blanton) who I interviewed before she died- it was about a four hour recorded interview- she said that when he got the job with Duke Ellington he had to get a bigger bass. She didn’t say anything about a three stringed bass, but just that he needed a bigger bass.

Jimmie Blanton
NOJ: When I did my research on Blanton, I found the information to be pretty sparse. One interview that I found, an oral history with drummer Lee Young, who was Lester Young’s brother,  was particularly interesting. I was very surprised to find out that as Young recounted, Jimmie and Nat King Cole and himself were “running” buddies in Los Angeles, California.

RD: They were?

NOJ: Yeah, that’s what Lee Young told an interviewer.

RD: Well, see one of his (Blanton’s)  good friends was Ben Webster in that band. Illinois Jacquet told me a story that when he first saw Blanton he was at jam session and he had heard so much about him that he was nervous to go into it. I was sitting right next to him when he told me that story. Wendell told me he  (Blanton) was headed toward developing some new harmonies that were in his head.
There is a guy… from somewhere in Europe who is doing his thesis on Blanton right now. He called on my former student, Peter Dominguez who is a bass professor at Oberlin, and he is talking to me through a guy named Lewis Porter, who wrote the book on Coltrane. So the research is still going on. I am planning on giving him, if it works out that way, the tapes I have when I interviewed Gertrude Blanton.

NOJ: I’d love to hear that interview.

RD: I caught up with her in Detroit before she died.

NOJ: What year was that?

RD:  I don’t remember but it was a long time ago.

NOJ: I don‘t know what you thought about the conclusions or speculations in my essay? I was very surprised to find that Blanton had probably played with Charlie Christian at least one time in his short career.  The fact that they both died so young, Blanton was 23 and Christian was 25 within five months of each other from TB, you have to wonder if one may have contracted it from the other?  It’s a mysterious coincidence considering they both revolutionized their respective instruments and both died of the same disease at the same time don’t you think?
Charlie Christian
RD:  U huh. Even when I started playing in 1945, my mother warned me against fast women and drinking.
TB was running rampant at that time.

NOJ: Let’s get back to you. You were born in Chicago 1930 and you were part of a family singing trio is that right?

RD: That was like when I was a kid.

NOJ: Do you still sing?

RD: I wouldn’t say I sing. It is something we just did around the house. We did try out for an amateur hour show called Major Bowes. We didn’t make it but we did it. My cousin, who influenced me to play the bass, used to coach us in singing. It was just something we did as kids.

NOJ: What was the very first concert that you attended that really had an influence on you.

RD: Well see, you know you would go to the neighborhood theater and see the bands on stage, that was before television took over. The Regal (Theater) was about four blocks from my house, (and I would try to go there) anytime they had a stage show and they had shows there very, very often.

NOJ: Was there any specific concert or performance that blew you away?

RD:  I can’t remember any specific concert, but the whole scenario blew me away because there you were listening to these live musicians playing and singing. I was impressed with the bass player, because he was spinning his bass around. It was quite a thing to see.

NOJ: It was very showman- like.

RD: Oh yeah, and they all had showman-like qualities.

NOJ: Well it was more than just music it was entertainment, right?

RD: It sure was. I was very impressed.

NOJ: You have stated in past interviews that your experience with Walter Dyett   your musical director at the famed Dusable High School music program, was instrumental in both your musical and personal development. Can you explain how he inspired you?

Walter Dyett 
RD: Well first off he was a highly spiritual person and a very skillful musician in different venues like jazz and classical. Did you ever hear of the Erskine-Tate band? He played in that band, he played banjo in that band. He was spiritual, he was a Rosicrucian and I learned a lot of things just being around him.

NOJ: Was he religiously spiritual or just secularly spiritual?

RD: He was a Rosicrucian. I understand George Washington was too. Have you heard it?

George Washington our Rosicrucian President
NOJ: I am not that familiar with that following, no. I think they were somehow related to the Masons.

RD: I am not that familiar with it either, but I know he did (practice) it. He was very inspirational with anybody whom he taught.

NOJ: Did he push you to achieve what you were looking to achieve because he saw in you something that was a natural talent?

RD: Yes. He had me at his house once a week…studying theory and harmony. I worked with his professional band. He told me what school to go to, what college to go to. I went to the same college he went to, VanderCook College of Music, and when I went there,( I understood) everything they were saying because I had heard it before… he was a graduate of that school. I was way ahead.

NOJ:  I have read that you pursued the bass because you were shy as a youngster and it was a bit of a background instrument that you felt you could hide behind it, and also because you had a natural affinity for the sound of the bass from a very early age. Can you elaborate how this developed into such a lifelong passion?

RD: Well I guess you just said it all there. I don’t think I can elaborate on that. (Laughing)

NOJ: Well I did read some of your previous interviews, but I wouldn’t want to put words into your mouth.

RD: Yeah, I think you have done a good job with wherever you have gotten that from.

NOJ: Well some of this material came from several sources, but I would like to hear it from the horse’s mouth.

RD:  That’s a good idea.

NOJ: And I hear you’re a horseman?

RD: That’s for sure. I been a horseman since I was nine and I only stopped in 1987.

NOJ: That became a passion too, right?

RD: It was definitely a passion. I did everything imaginable with horses. I only stopped when I moved into the city here (Madison, Wisconsin), because I no longer had a place to keep the horses.

Richard Davis training one of his horses
NOJ:  Getting back to your musical experiences, who was the very first bass player that you saw perform live that you were really impressed with, and when was that?

RD: That I heard?  Well see, at fifteen years of age, when I started playing the bass, there was a student in high school with me named Karl Byrom .I was very impressed when he played. He and I became  friendly and consequently there were all these other (jazz)bass players he knew about.

NOJ: So he introduced you to them?

RD: Yeah he had their recordings. Oscar Pettiford, Jimmie Blanton, Slam Stewart, Milt Hinton all these guys.

NOJ: So let me ask you about some of these guys and as one of the great jazz bass players, I would love to get your impromptu take on them as bass players.
Let’s start with Walter Page?
 Bassist  Walter Page
RD: Walter Page to me was like the Rock of Gibraltar with the walking bass line. He was solid, he had a big sound. He was in a rhythm section that they called the “All American Rhythm Section,” he and Jo Jones, Freddie Green and Count Basie. I was not impressed with any of his particular skills. He didn’t solo at all, as far as I know, but he was inspiring.

NOJ: I would say maybe Blanton next?

RD: Yes, Blanton next.

NOJ: And how did he change the way the bass was being played?

RD:  First, he was soloing and he was bowing and he would come out in front of the band and play a duet with Duke Ellington. I heard him and I said boy I’m impressed. My teacher who was a European classical teacher from the Chicago Symphony had his record too, what he did with Duke.

NOJ: Wasn’t Slam Stewart doing stuff like that at the same time?

RD: Oh I can’t give you a date, but I am sure he was.
Bassist LeRoy "Slam" Stewart
NOJ: In that same interview done with Lester Young’s brother, drummer Lee Young, Lee recalled that Slam Stewart and Jimmie Blanton once had a cutting session. Lester, who was a big Slam Stewart fan, thought he was the tops and was rooting for Stewart, but after he heard Blanton at that session he became a convert.

RD: Oh yeah. I’d wish I could have heard Blanton in a jam session playing with the bow. That was never recorded.

NOJ: What about Milt Hinton?
Bassist Milt Hinton
RD: Well Milt Hinton was an exceptional player playing on both classical and jazz. He did a solo album. I think it was called Ebony Silhouette, he bowed on it. I wish I could find that record. He bowed the melody I know I heard it. I think that was the name of it Ebony Silhouette.

NOJ: What about Oscar (Pettiford)?

RD: Well now you’re talking about (laughing) some sort of monster there man. Did you ever hear him play on Swamp Fire with Duke Ellington?

NOJ: Yeah, he used to play cello too right?
Bassist and Cellist Oscar Pettiford with Duke Ellington
RD: Yeah. He was playing a baseball game and fell down and broke his arm and he picked up the cello as something that put less pressure on it. Oscar Pettiford was a natural and his solos were swinging.

NOJ: What is the difference in your mind between Blanton and Pettiford?

RD: Two different people with two different ideas on how to solo. Pettiford was maybe as good as Blanton, I am not really sure about that, but Blanton was in the world’s eye before Pettiford. I met Oscar, I talked to him a lot. Oh yeah, I met him in New York, He was very egotistical. I was on the (Ellington) bus when they were getting ready to leave, because I knew somebody (in the band). Pettiford said ”I don’t need him (referring to Duke) , he needs me.”  (Laughing) I said to myself wow!
One time, I was hanging out with Wendell (Marshall, Ellington’s regular bass player at the time)  we were both hanging out with Pettiford and Pettiford said to me and Wendell  ”Why don’t you guys come around to this rehearsal  I got so you can learn how to play the bass.” (Laughing) When he played on that record he did Swamp Fire, I was impressed. That record, I think I have got it on the old vinyl.

NOJ: That’s got to be great. What about a guy like Tommy Potter?

RD: Tommy Potter was a good bassist. He was one of the guys in bebop who could keep those tempos. I never really saw him as a soloist. See soloists were taking over from the guys that were just walking, and Tommy Potter and Curley Russell were responsible for doing that (walking) stuff. I remember all those guys. When I met Curley Russell, someone had taken me backstage where he was working to meet him and he told the guy “… don’t tell him to make a career out of music.” (Laughing)He was protecting me.
Bassist Curley Russell
NOJ:  What about Ray Brown?

RD: Oh yeah he was a monster, man. He was out there with all of them.
Bassist Ray Brown
NOJ: How do these guys differ from each other in your mind?

RD: Well they are different spirits of different times in jazz performance. You might say that Ray Brown came up during the bebop era. Now the guy that started playing bebop on the bass was Oscar Pettiford. That is the way I see it.  There is another bass player back in those days… he was with Stan Kenton.

NOJ: How about Israel Crosby was he around then?

Bassist Israel Crosby
RD: Oh man Israel; he was one of these young guys that started. Israel Crosby was ooh. I remember him in Chicago. Yeah, good bassist.

NOJ: And (George)Duvivier?

RD: There is another one. He was known for his beat and his precision and intonation.

NOJ: Yeah he has great intonation.

RD: Yes sir!

NOJ:  How about Red Mitchell?
Bassist Red Mitchell

RD: Now there was a phenomenal player too.

NOJ: He played with a different tuning didn’t he?

RD: I think he did.

NOJ: I loved his work with Hampton Hawes trio. They just cooked. I really liked the way Red played.

RD:  I met him much later.

NOJ: Then of course there was Mingus, who was in his own world.
Bassist and Composer Charles Mingus
RD: Yeah he was in his own world all right.

NOJ:  (Laughing) Brilliant, but sort of difficult.

RD: He made sure of that.

NOJ: What about a guy like Scott LaFaro, who everybody says was a pivotal point on the bass?

Bassist Scott LaFaro
RD: He was definitely a pivotal point on the bass.

NOJ: And why was that?

RD: He just played high on the register and played fast and with alternate fingering. He played out of time. He was basically not just keeping the beat. You know Ray Brown said the first guy that he heard who was doing that stuff was me.

NOJ: You?

RD: That’s what Ray Brown said.

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