Richard Davis, Legendary Jazz Bassist Who Conjured Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks,’ Dead at 93

Richard Davis - Credit: Paul CHARBIT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Richard Davis - Credit: Paul CHARBIT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Richard Davis, the prolific bassist who adorned jazz classics by Pharoah Sanders, Eric Dolphy, and Andrew Hill and laid the musical foundation for Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, has died at the age of 93.

Davis’ daughter Persia confirmed her father’s death Thursday on both a memorial page and to Madison 365; Davis taught at the University of Wisconsin for over 40 years, but spent the last two years in hospice care. “We appreciate all the love and support the community has shown him over the years,” Persia Davis added.

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The Chicago-born Davis came from a musical family and studied double bass in high school under renowned music teacher Walter Dyett, who taught Davis to weave his skillset between classical works and the emerging, improvisational movement that was jazz in the late 1940s. Davis attended Chicago’s VanderCook College before embarking to New York City in his early twenties in 1954.

Davis then found steady work with piano great Ahmad Jamal and in the rhythm section for jazz singer Sarah Vaughan and would spend the remainder of the 1950s under her tutelage.

“You could say I went to the University of Sarah Vaughan,” Davis told Isthmus in 2014. “She was so musically skilled. And playing with her brought me to play with her accompanist Jimmy Jones, whose knowledge of chords was phenomenal. Sarah was so musical she could improvise beautifully along with the changes he would play. And the great percussionist Roy Haynes was in that band too, and he had such an amazing concept of rhythm… Once you’ve proven yourself with musicians at that level, other vocalists start to call you, because they figure you must know something.”

It wasn’t just vocalists who sought out Davis’ services: Beginning in 1959 — when he and his Vaughan rhythm mate Haynes played alongside Kenny Burrell for A Night at the Vanguard — Davis would become one of the most in-demand bassists, especially among the musicians exploring the emerging free jazz movement.

The first half of the decade alone found Davis providing the bottom end on landmark Blue Note albums by Andrew Hill (Black Fire, Point of Departure), Bobby Hutcherson (Dialogue), Joe Henderson (In ‘N Out), and Eric Dolphy, who enlisted Davis for the sessions that would yield Iron Man and his 1964 masterwork Out to Lunch!

“Limiting yourself to a particular set of notes and chords is in a sense being a slave to the powers that be,” Davis, a friend of fellow voyager Sun Ra, would later say of free jazz. “We were resisting being imprisoned by chord changes, trying to free ourselves from the restrictions of scales and rhythms. Some people call this free music. Some of us called it our music. Unrestricted, indefinable, and free.” Nowhere is that more evident than Pharoah Sanders’ jazz masterpiece “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” which Davis also played on.

“Richard Davis’ Sixties résumé reads like a survey of some of that decade’s most challenging and enduring musical statements,” Rolling Stone wrote of Davis when he placed Number 34 on our list of the 50 Greatest Bassists of All Time. “But that’s just a fraction of his overall output: During the past 60-plus years, he’s also elevated the bands, sessions, and performances of giants like Sarah Vaughan, Paul Simon, and Igor Stravinsky. Davis is at his best in intimate settings, where his profoundly empathic playing can shine.”

In 1967, Davis, alongside drummer Elvin Jones, released his first album as co-leader, Heavy Sounds. However, it was an unlikely collaboration the following year that resulted in perhaps Davis’ most enduring work, as producer Lewis Merenstein — who previously worked jazz sessions with Davis — enlisted the bassist to pilot the musical landscape for an album by an up-and-coming Irish singer named Van Morrison. The result of those sessions — where Davis and his handpicked band created music for songs they had never heard — was Astral Weeks.

“Some people are real disillusioned when I tell them about making the record,” Davis told Rolling Stone in 1987. “People say, ‘[Morrison] must have talked to you about the record and created the magic feeling that had to be there….’ To tell you the truth, I don’t remember any conversations with him. He pretty much kept to himself. He didn’t make any suggestions about what to play, how to play, how to stylize what we were doing.”

“[F]or me, it was Richard all the way,” Astral Weeks producer Lewis Merenstein once said. “Richard was the soul of the album.” Rolling Stone’s Griel Marcus would declare of Davis’ work “the greatest bass ever heard on a rock album.” Morrison, always evasive when discussing the album, once said the songs were “just channeled. They just came through.”

Astral Weeks’ resonance was so powerful and influential that, over the decades that followed, Davis was soon pursued by rock and folk musicians: Bruce Springsteen, an Astral Weeks acolyte, recruited Davis to play his double bass on Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.’s “The Angel,” as well as the Born to Run classic “Meeting Across the River.”

Davis would also feature on a string of albums by folk singer Janis Ian, as well as songs by Paul Simon (“Something So Right”), Carly Simon (“Mind on My Man”), Bonnie Raitt, Laura Nyro, Judy Collins, Buffalo Springfield and countless more.

In the first half of the Seventies, Davis continued to balance his genre-hopping endeavors, releasing nearly a dozen of his own albums as band leader while also playing on Charles Mingus’ 1972 powerhouse Let My Children Hear Music, an LP that brought together three of jazz’s greatest bassists, Mingus, Davis, and Ron Carter.

Davis’ prolific run began to slow in 1977 when he pivoted to academia and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where he enjoyed a lengthy tenure as a music professor at the University of Wisconsin before his retirement in 2016; two decades earlier, he established the Richard David Foundation for Young Bassists at the university. In 2014, Davis was anointed the prestigious title of Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts.

Reflecting on his decades-long career spanning the genres of jazz, rock, and classical, Davis told Isthmus in 2014, “Duke Ellington always said there’s no difference between jazz and classical. He didn’t classify any genres. To him, there were only two kinds of music: It’s either good or bad. I’m with Duke Ellington on that.”

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