Legendary bassist retires

School of Music faculty member and legendary bassist Richard Davis retires this spring, after 39 years at UW-Madison. His impact on many music students here was profound.

Back to News


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.”

Davis joined the School of Music in 1977 after having already established himself as one of the leading bass players in the jazz and classical fields. 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.

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.

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. He received the city’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award in 2003.