Artists You Should Know: Art Davis

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The other night I was listening to a great early recording on the Impulse label—the Rolls Royce of jazz labels—by John Coltrane, called Africa Brass.  It was Coltrane’s first lp for Impulse.  It’s a powerful date, with musical evocations and imaginings of African music, arranged for a large ensemble.

There are two upright bassists on the date:  one is Reggie Workman.  The other bassist is Art Davis.  Having two bassists playing adds something unusual to this musical tapestry.  Art Davis introduced the idea of having two bassists playing on a jazz session.  Critic Nat Hentoff called him a “genius beyond category”.

Art Davis was a classically-trained contrabassist:  he studied at both Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music.  He worked both session gigs with pop artists, jazz dates, and  with symphony orchestras including the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras.

Art Davis was important beyond his skills as a versatile bassist.  He confronted the mighty New York Philharmonic, then directed by Leonard Bernstein, in a lawsuit asserting that hiring practices of the organization were discriminatory.

Davis won the lawsuit, and helped initiate the practice of blind auditions for classical orchestras.  No small feat.  And it took 10 years out of his life.  And got him blacklisted by many orchestras.  Ahmad Jamal once called Davis “the forgotten genius”.

Davis moved to Southern California in the early 80s.  By then he’d earned a Ph.d from New York University in clinical psychology.  In Southern California Davis continued to play in jazz clubs while also teaching at the University of California, Irvine.  I got to know him when he visited Morning Becomes Eclectic during that period.  He was enthusiastic about music, holistic health, and was a gourmet chef.

Art Davis was a brilliant, skilled, and creative artist.  He was incredibly disciplined.  He was also kind, compassionate, and warm.  He died in 2007 at the age of 73.  I am grateful to have met and known him.  And I think of him whenever I listen to the great Coltrane session, Africa Brass.