Art Davis, the renowned double bassist who played with John Coltrane and other jazz greats, was blacklisted in the 1970s for speaking up about racism in the music industry, and then later in life earned a doctorate in clinical psychology and balanced performance dates with appointments to see patients, has died. He was 73.
Davis, a player whom jazz critic Nat Hentoff once described as “an astonishing player” and “beyond category,” died of a heart attack Sunday at his home in Long Beach, said his son Kimaili Davis.
“He was adventurous with his approach to playing music,” said pianist Nate Morgan, who played with the elder Davis intermittently over the last 10 years. “It takes a certain amount of integrity to step outside the box and say, ‘I like it here and I’m going to hang here for a while.’ ”
Known for his stunning and complete mastery of the instrument, Davis was able to genre-hop comfortably. He played classical music with the New York Philharmonic, was a member of the NBC, Westinghouse and CBS orchestras, and played for Broadway shows.
The most intense and enriching experience of Davis’ career was his collaboration with John Coltrane. Described by Hentoff as Coltrane’s favorite bassist, Davis performed on the saxophonist’s albums including “Ascension,” Volumes 1 and 2 of “The Africa/Brass Sessions” and “Ole Coltrane.” The two musicians met one night in the late 1950s at Small’s Paradise, a jazz club in Harlem, where Davis was playing with drummer Max Roach. Coltrane invited Davis to play with him the following morning at one of his legendary grueling practice sessions.
A few years later, when Coltrane was building his quartet, he invited Davis to join. By then he had become averse to touring and so declined, although he periodically played with the group.
Davis viewed his instrument as “the backbone of the band,” one that should “inspire the group by proposing harmonic information with a certain sound quality and rhythmic impulses,” Davis said in an excerpt from So What magazine posted on his website. “You let the bass do the talking. A bassist cannot be satisfied with playing straight.” By following his own advice, Davis’ career flourished. He played with a long and varied list of artists: Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, John Denver, the trio Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan.
Pianist Ahmad Jamal once dubbed Davis the “forgotten genius” because the outspoken bassist had been blacklisted for many years. Davis’ decision to take a stand against racism was born of his experiences in music.
Davis began studying piano at age 5 in Harrisburg, Pa., where he was born Dec. 5, 1933. By sixth grade Davis studied the tuba in school simply because it was the only instrument available, he said.
By 1951 he decided to make music his career but chose the double bass, believing it would allow more opportunities to make a living. At age 17 he studied with the principal double bassist at the Philadelphia Orchestra. But when he auditioned for his hometown’s symphony, the audition committee was so unduly harsh and demanding that the conductor Edwin MacArthur questioned their objectivity.
“The answer was, ‘Well, he’s [colored]’ -- and there was silence,” Davis recalled in a 2002 article in Double Bassist magazine. “Finally MacArthur burst out, ‘If you don’t want him, then you don’t want me.’ So they quickly got together and accepted me.” After high school, Davis studied classical music on scholarship at the Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School of Music. At night he played jazz in New York clubs.
“It all sounded good to me -- and I felt I could do a number of different fields,” he told Double Bassist. “I was of one the first to switch back and forth from jazz to classical.”
But the switch was not always an easy one. Davis encountered situations where race was more important than performance. In the 1970s, his fortunes waned after he filed an unsuccessful discrimination lawsuit against the New York Philharmonic. Like other black musicians who challenged job hiring practices, he lost work and important industry connections.
“As a person, he had enormous integrity,” Hentoff said in an interview this week. “He wouldn’t bend to accommodate bias or the ignorance of some of the people in the music business.”
With less work coming his way, Davis returned to school and in 1981 earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University. Davis was for many years a practicing psychologist while also working as a musician.
“I went up against the big power people and lost 10 years of my life. I feel vindicated [through his court case], and I wouldn’t be a Dr. Art Davis if it hadn’t happened,” he told Double Bassist.
As a result of his lawsuit and protest, Davis played a key role in the increased use of the so-called blind audition, in which musicians are heard but not seen by those evaluating them, Hentoff said.
The accomplished musician also pioneered a fingering technique for the bass and wrote “The Arthur Davis System for Double Bass.”
Davis also wore the hat of university professor; for two years he taught at UC Irvine. Most recently Davis was a part-time music instructor at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. He could be regularly heard on Sundays at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel. Among musicians, Davis was highly respected for his work and his role in the Coltrane legacy.
“And he always had a great attitude, no matter what kind of music we were playing or how difficult the circumstances were,” said Jan Jordan, the pianist who played with Davis at the Ritz.
“He always reached out to people in the audience.”
In addition to his son Kimaili of Oak Park, Davis is survived by son Mureithi Davis of Tustin and daughter Taisha Jack of Culver City. Davis’ wife, Gladys, died in 1995.