UW-Madison School of Music faculty member and legendary bassist Richard Davis retired from the university last spring after 39 years. His impact on many music students here was profound. But his quiet and steady impact on Madison’s racial climate has been equally profound and he pointedly assures anyone who wonders that he’ll never retire from working to heal racism.
In 2000, decades into his musical career and before the broad popularity of approaching racism by addressing individual beliefs and misconceptions on a person-to-person basis, Davis founded the non-profit organization Madison Wisconsin Institute for Healing Racism, Inc. Its mission is to raise consciousness about the history and pathology of racism and to help heal racism in individuals, communities and institutions within the Greater Madison area and all over the nation. He received Madison’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award in 2003 for his work in diversity.
Regardless of how far he’s travelled, or where he’s performed, racism is present everywhere, Davis said. That includes his adopted hometown of Madison.
“The institute embodies my personal experience with racial attitudes,” he said.
It was a visit to Madison by University of Massachusetts-Amherst Professor Nathan Rutstein, an internationally-known diversity advocate and author on media, racism, spirituality and educational reform, that started Davis down the path of working to teach about the process of healing racism, Davis said.
“He (Rutstein) came to the university to speak and after we met he called me a ‘stayer,’ someone who stays put until the work is done. He had all kinds of faith in me,” Davis said. Rutstein, who passed away in 2006, always reminded Davis that he needed to learn how to fully forgive. In fact, that aspect of their very close friendship helped Davis to understand why the work of racial healing is never complete.
“The work is never done. You can’t die until you’ve made your contribution to hopefully change attitudes of bigotry.” — Prof. Richard Davis
Participation in the institute is not for the faint of heart, or anyone who is willing to go through the motions just to list another seminar on their resume, or score easy continuing education credits. The sessions, led by experienced facilitators, dive deep and sweep wide, with topics including the history of racism, the oneness of humankind/humanity, the pathology of racism as a disease, how racism is perpetuated and institutionalized racism.
“Our beliefs and attitudes about race and interpersonal differences begin manifesting as soon as we are born,” Davis said. “I’ve known those attitudes since I was three years old. My mother taught me. Racial conditioning is what all of us have suffered from because as we grew up, we were conditioned to believe certain attitudes and misconceptions about other people and ourselves. These attitudes and misconceptions about people we’ve never even met come from our families, our schools, our institutions and the media. It’s a form of brainwashing and we become attached to them emotionally. ”
Racism is embedded in the inaccuracies of history and how certain groups are portrayed and labeled, which in turn creates a reaction to those stories and effects our view of ourselves, he added. History perpetuates the myth that blacks are inferior, Davis said, and the myth has become institutionalized. But like the Institute, it’s not just about people of color, he added.
“White people should be even more angry because they’ve been told they are better than everyone else all their lives,” Davis said. He lost one of his best friends to white privilege, he added. His former friend couldn’t identify his own sense of white privilege and sense of unjustified superiority, which led to frequent demeaning and racist comments. Davis chose not to associate with him anymore because his former friend just didn’t understand why his words and attitude were offensive.
But Davis, along with the steering committee and the participants of the Institute, believe that a vindictive attitude toward the oppressor or oppressed is not of a healing nature. Their philosophy advocates forgiveness.
“I only hope that I can somehow change who I am in my remaining lifetime and pass on to my children what little I now know so they do not have to wait 46 years to finally learn the meaning of racism.” – Retired University of Wisconsin Police Captain Dale G. Burke
The next two Fall 2016 Institute series begin Sept. 14 and 15. Open to *all regardless of race/ethnicity, religion, political affiliations, sexual orientation, or gender expression who are 16 or older, participants are required to make a 10-week commitment of about two hours for full understanding and impact. People of color are also encouraged to apply and space is limited. If you think you’re going to miss more than two sessions, please apply to a later session when you can fulfill the attendance commitment, Davis emphasizes.
An active steering committee works cooperatively and continually with the institute’s member participants, who know their work toward understanding and teaching about diversity and healing racism is never done. One series of 10 two-hour sessions just touches on the racial healing process, Davis said, which is why participation in more than one series is recommended.
“Ten weeks is like a minute, a grain of sand in the educational format we present,” Davis said, and full engagement for 10 weeks or more is necessary to address racial attitudes that typically permeate every aspect of our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. “You have to fully engage with attitudes that are in full force and used all the time in real life.”
It is the consensus of many experts on anti-racism that a mix of ethnicity is an enhancement to the group, but is not necessary for one’s healing. As Judy Katz states in White Awareness: “In efforts to deal with that pervasive disease racism, human relations practitioners have become increasingly convinced that the American form of the disease is most effectively treated as a White problem that severely damages its White victims, as well as those against whom it is directed. More, since White racism is a White problem, it is the business of White people to resolve it. We must not place the burden of changing White attitudes and behavior upon the members of minority races. It is not their responsibility to help us to change. The responsibility/accountability is ours.”
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine then let us work together.” – Lila Watson
The study of real laws and policies that have infiltrated the social, political and economic fiber of American society is sobering, Davis said. Regardless of whether or not we are impacted by it or unwittingly benefit, examining history and law is eye-opening for everyone, Davis said. The institute then uses the lessons on historical context to examine local issues in a new informed light. And finally, participants move into examining where they currently dwell, how to change and heal their perspectives and work with others seeking change, healing and the desire to combat racism through the examination of white privilege, ally building and fear/action.
It all sounds like arduous, grueling work, but the institutes and what is accomplished in them, are a source of joy for Davis. He’s not retiring, he’s rearranging his time to put more emphasis on diversity work, Davis summarized.
“Richard is what, back in the day, we used to call a renaissance man. We is an outstanding musician, a humanitarian, an influential activist, a social innovator and a great human being. And he has the spirit of a little kid. There are few who have brought so much to making this a better world.” — Michael Thornton
Richard Davis is an international performing musician and Professor of Bass (European Classical and Jazz), Jazz History and combo improvisation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Chicago born, he came to the UW-Madison in 1977 after spending 23 years in New York City establishing himself as one of the world’s premier bass players. Following musical studies in Chicago, where he began his commitment to a musical interdisciplinarity that remained throughout his career, he relocated to New York City in 1954. In New York, he began what would become a decades-long performing and recording career. Notably, Davis toured with Sarah Vaughan and performed alongside Jaki Byard, Eric Dolphy, Elvin Jones and Roland Kirk. He was a member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra from 1966-72.
Downbeat International Critics Poll named him Best Bassist from 1967-74. In the world of classical music, Davis worked with conductors and composers such as Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Gunther Schuller and Igor Stravinsky. Davis’s ability to perform in multiple styles and take on diverse repertories made him sought after by rock and popular music musicians as well. He recorded with Janis Ian, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison. As recently as 2008, he performed live with Bruce Springsteen in Milwaukee. He has recorded a dozen albums as a leader and 3000 recordings/jingles as a sideman. Other performance/recording credits include Don Sebesky, Oliver Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Ahmad Jamal and a host of other notables.
“Richard Davis will be greatly missed,” says Susan Cook, Director of the School of Music. “Since he joined the faculty, Richard has been a living embodiment of the School’s commitment to the Wisconsin Idea, sharing tirelessly his expertise and insights with audiences throughout the state and internationally. We know that in retirement he’ll continue to be a transformative educator.”
“It takes only a few minutes of conversation with Davis to figure out that this is a man who likes to wing it. That’s true whether he’s recording an album, teaching a group of aspiring bassists or mapping out a concert set list. Maximum freedom expressed from within a framework of mastery.”
Bob Jacobson, covering Richard Davis as part of the Isthmus Jazz Festival round-up.
Throughout his long career, Davis received numerous awards, most notably in 2014 he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. That same year, the Oral History Association recognized Davis at their national meeting with a public oral history interview.
In 1993, Davis created the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists, which carries out an annual weekend devoted to nurturing emerging bass players; bass performers, many of whom studied with Richard themselves, come from around the country to lend their support and mentorship.
Well known in the larger Madison community, Davis founded the Institutes for the Healing of Racism in 2000.
Read more about Richard Davis’ life and work in this lively Isthmus piece by local journalist Bob Jacobson: Richard Davis: The face of the bass.
*Registration Fee $50.00 — Scholarships are available. For more scholarship information, please email IHRscholarship@gmail.com. Registration payment will be accepted once your enrollment is confirmed. Please wait for more information regarding registration payment.
Parts of this story are from the May 13, 2016, article by L&S News
5 responses to “Legendary bassist retires”
- Marge Sutinensays:
Dear Richard, although the word “retirement” is being used in this announcement, it is only a word to you. I know you will continue to teach and mentor as long as you are alive. But now maybe you’ll have time for that long delayed lunch date, Marge
- Sapphron Obois says:
I am a professional jazz musician, I play saxophone. I was fortunate to take Richards first jazz class in 1976. He influenced my life and career more than anyone. I think you Richard for your kindness, and encouragement to do a career in jazz music. I am forever indebted to your beautiful energy, soul, and music. Thank you and I hope someday to play with you one more time !! Sapphron Obois
- Joel Black says:
I first saw Richard in 1963 at the 5 Spot in NYC when he played with Eric Dolphy. He has been a close friend from the moment he arrived here. Besides being loved by his students he has been very active in community affairs. Many times I would arrive at his house for an appointment only to find him chairing a meeting dealing with community problems. I have always been amazed how one person could find the time and energy to be involved with a city on so many levels.
- Liza Lightfoot says:
Richard Thank you, you taught me so much about Black music history, jazz, swing, the downbeat, vocal improvisation and racism, you gave so much to so many.