Art Davis, a renowned double bassist who played with John Coltrane and other jazz greats, has died at 73. Mr. Davis was blacklisted in the...
LOS ANGELES — Art Davis, a renowned double bassist who played with John Coltrane and other jazz greats, has died at 73.
Mr. Davis was blacklisted in the 1970s for speaking up about racism in the music industry, then later in life earned a doctorate in clinical psychology and balanced performance dates with appointments to see patients.
Mr. Davis, whom jazz critic Nat Hentoff once described as “an astonishing player” and “beyond category,” died last Sunday from a heart attack at his Long Beach, Calif., home, said his son Kimaili Davis.
Known for his stunning and complete mastery of the instrument, Mr. Davis moved comfortably between musical genres. He played classical music with the New York Philharmonic, was a member of the NBC, Westinghouse and CBS orchestras, and played for Broadway shows.
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The most intense and enriching experience of his career was his collaboration with Coltrane, the saxophonist, composer and bandleader. Described by Hentoff as Coltrane’s favorite bassist, Mr. Davis performed on Coltrane albums including “Ascension,” “Africa Brass I and II” and “Ole.”
Mr. 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,” Mr. Davis said in an excerpt from So What magazine posted on his Web site. “You let the bass do the talking. A bassist cannot be satisfied with playing straight.”
Mr. 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, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul and Mary.
Pianist Ahmad Jamal once called Mr. Davis the “forgotten genius,” because the outspoken bassist was blacklisted for many years. His decision to take a stand was born of his experiences in music.
Mr. Davis began studying piano at age 5 in Harrisburg, Pa., where he was born Dec. 5, 1933. By sixth grade he studied the tuba in school simply because it was the only instrument available, he said.
By 1951 he had decided to make music his career, but he chose the double bass, believing it would allow more opportunities.
After high school, Mr. Davis studied classical music on scholarship at the Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School of Music. He played jazz in New York clubs at night.
“It all sounded good to me — and I felt I could do a number of different fields,” he told Double Bassist magazine. “I was of one the first to switch back and forth from jazz to classical.”
But the switch was not always an easy one. Mr. Davis encountered situations where race was more important than performance.
His fortunes waned in the 1970s 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.
With less work coming his way, he returned to school and in 1981 earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University. Mr. Davis for many years was 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 magazine.
As a result of his lawsuit and protest, Mr. Davis played a key role in the increased use of the “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.”
For two years Mr. Davis taught at the University of California, Irvine. Most recently, he was a part-time music instructor at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif.
In addition to his son Kimaili of Oak Park, Calif., Mr. Davis is survived by son Mureithi Davis of Tustin, Calif., and daughter Taisha Jack of Culver City, Calif. Mr. Davis’ wife, Gladys, died in 1995.