He came by jazz naturally.
In Chicago, Richard Davis was inspired by the music of the neighborhood he grew up in. Davis, now a University of Wisconsin professor, started playing bass in 1945.
Davis was honored earlier this year with the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship Award, an honor given to highly esteemed jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis since 1982.
A UW faculty member, Davis has also involved himself in organizations and student life.
In 1998, he created the Retention Action Project on campus to discuss multicultural differences by bringing together university representatives and social change activists. He also founded the Madison Wisconsin Institute for the Healing of Racism in 2000 to raise awareness about the history of racism.
After growing up in Chicago and attending the VanderCook College of Music, Davis spent more than 23 years in New York City establishing himself in the music industry. He then went on tour with Sarah Vaughan, showcasing his skills around the world.
Davis went on to play with artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis and Barbra Streisand. When he was not collaborating, he played solo concerts in venues around the world.
“You tell me a place I haven’t traveled,” Davis said. “Japan, Jamaica … I’ve done extensive traveling for my music.”
Japan was his favorite place to perform because he would play for as many as 5,000 people at a time.
When he was not performing, Davis also involved himself in the advertising industry. According to his website, he has recorded more than 3,000 recordings and jingles.
“My favorite one was for Fresca. I made that one over 60 years ago,” Davis said.
In 1993, he founded the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists, Inc., which annually brings in bass instructors and performers to teach young bassists. The foundation is directed toward “financially challenged” youth.
Davis said he ended up at UW by simply getting on a plane.
“I was chosen,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in any other schools.”
Davis has been a professor at UW for 25 years and currently teaches European Classical and Jazz. An applied music class, it gives students the opportunity to work one-on-one with Davis to improve their musical skills.
Davis said a number of his students have gone on to do notable things in the music industry. Some of them are professors and others are playing in symphony orchestras, he said.
For his humanitarian work and extensive portfolio of musical accomplishments, Davis has won more than 40 different awards and accolades. He was named “Best Bassist” from 1967-1974 by DownBeat Magazine. In 2003, he won the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther, King Jr. Humanitarian Award, which was bestowed upon him by former Madison Mayor Susan Bauman.
Davis is currently working on his autobiography.