UW-Madison music professor Richard Davis has been awarded a 2014 Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest honor in jazz.
The award, which comes with a $25,000 prize, is the latest laurel for the 83-year-old legend who’s played bass with icons including rocker Bruce Springsteen and classical conductor Igor Stravinsky.
“It feels good to be honored amongst your peers,” Davis said . “I’ve known about these awards for years because I know most of the people who received them. It’s almost like a club.”
Other honorees this year were Keith Jarrett, Anthony Braxton and Jamey Aebersold.
Davis, a Chicago native who’s been a professor in Madison since 1977, and the other awardees were chosen for their “lifetime achievements and exceptional
contributions to the advancement of jazz,” the NEA said in a statement.
Davis credited his teacher, Walter Dyett at DuSable High School in Chicago, for infecting him with a lifelong passion for jazz and performance.
He’s enjoyed a six-decade career as a studio and performing musician. Along the way he’s released a dozen albums of his own, earned recognition as a top jazz bassist worldwide and performed all over the globe, from Madison to Tokyo.
“Richard Davis, with his wide palette of skill sets, has been an inspiration for me and many bassists,” said composer and bassist Linda Oh in the statement. “To me, he shows strength and versatility within his musicianship — a versatility that seems to not compromise integrity and individuality, something many bassists can only dream to achieve.”
Davis reached into his wallet when asked about his proudest moment as a musician.
Politely rephrasing the question, he said he’d rather talk about his proudest moment as a person.
It came in a letter he carries everywhere with him from his daughter Persia, sent in 1996 when she was 14 years old.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about how lucky I am to have such a great father,” his daughter wrote.
Davis framed the original letter and captioned it, “My Greatest Award.” He raised his daughter, now a Chicago psychologist, by himself since she was 5 years old.
“She turned out just the way I molded her,” he said.
He also shared another letter from recent UW-Madison graduate Catherine Harris, who will soon take over as executive director of the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists, formed by Davis in 1993. The organization pairs master jazz performers with young musicians — Harris herself was a part of it — to develop the youngsters’ talent and ambitions.
“I’ve learned more from you than from any other teacher I’ve ever had,” Harris wrote to Davis.
Davis came to Madison in 1977 after spending 23 years in New York City establishing himself as one of the world’s premier bass players. Down Beat International Critics Poll named him best bassist from 1967 to 1974.
In Madison he dedicated himself to pursuits beyond just his music, including teaching, fatherhood and civil rights activism.
He founded and runs the Institute for the Healing of Racism out of his house and founded the Retention Action Project to keep students of color at UW-Madison on track to graduate. In 2008, the city of Madison honored him with the Rev. James C. Wright Human Rights Award.
Davis continues to teach and has no plans to stop.
“It’s difficult to think of not teaching,” he said. “I teach with the attitude of a family and that works very well.”