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Richard Davis, international jazz legend and champion of racial justice, dies at 93

Richard Davis, professor of music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison . (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

Richard Davis, the internationally renowned jazz bassist who taught at the University of Wisconsin for more than 40 years, has passed away at the age of 93, his daughter Persia Davis confirmed.

He died Wednesday afternoon after two years in hospice care.

Davis was born April 15, 1930 in Chicago. He studied bass at DuSable High School under the legendary Captain Walter Dyett, then at VanderCook College of Music. After college, he moved to New York City where he spent 23 year establishing himself as one of the world’s premier bass players before coming to Madison to teach at UW in 1977.

“They kept calling me to come here,” Davis said in a 2019 interview with Madison365. “I finally said okay. I had never heard of Madison … I felt it was time to spread my knowledge to the young folks.”

Richard Davis accepts the MLK Heritage Award at the Wisconsin State Capitol in January of 2016.

Though primarily known as a jazz bassist, he recorded with folk, jazz, and rock artists from Miles Davis to Van Morrison to Bruce Springsteen, and he also performed under Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, and many others.

In 1993, with former student Dr. Peter Dominguez, now a professor of bass at the UW, Davis founded the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists, an independent nonprofit organization that hosts an annual conference where young bass players can learn from and perform with masters from around the country.

Beyond the music, Davis worked to make Madison a more welcoming place for people of color.

The new commemorative plaque on Richard Davis Lane in the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood helps to preserve jazz legend’s legacy for generations of Madisonians to come

“People say Madison is very liberal. It’s not,” Davis said in 2019. “I saw a need for change.” To make that change, he founded the Madison chapter of the Institutes for the Healing of Racism and hosted weekly meetings for more than 25 years.

In 2018, a new street in the Darbo Worthington neighborhood on Madison’s east side was named Richard Davis Lane, with a plaque describing his legacy installed in 2021.

“Richard was a musical mentor for me starting as an undergrad college student. His passion for causes ranging from race to spirituality to music will continue to be an inspiration,” Madison musician Dave Stoler said in a Facebook message to Madison365.

Persia Davis said her father requested no public memorial service, and that the family would dispose of his ashes privately. She established an online memorial here, where friends and admirers are welcome to leave remembrances. You can also support the Richard Davis Foundation by donating at this link.

“We appreciate all the love and support the community has shown him over the years,” she said.