Art Davis, the renowned double bassist who played with John Coltrane and other jazz greats, has died. He was 73.
Davis died of a heart attack Sunday at his home in Long Beach, his son Kimaili Davis told the Los Angeles Times for a story in Saturday’s editions.
Davis was blacklisted in the 1970s for speaking up about racism in the music industry, then later earned a doctorate in clinical psychology and balanced performance dates with appointments to see patients.
“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 jump between 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.
The most enriching experience of his career was collaborating with John Coltrane. Described by jazz critic Nat 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.
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 Web site.
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.
Battling racial prejudiceDavis began studying piano at age 5 in Harrisburg, Pa., where he was born in 1933. By sixth grade Davis studied the tuba in school because it was the only instrument available, he said.
By 1951 he decided to make music his career. He 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.
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 industry connections.
With less work coming his way, Davis returned to school and in 1981 earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University. For many years he was a practicing psychologist while also working as a musician.
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. He taught at UC Irvine for two years. Most recently Davis was a part-time music instructor at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.
Besides his son Kimaili, Davis is survived by another son and a daughter.