Jazz Bassist Art Davis, 73; Later Became Psychologist

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 5, 2007

Art Davis, a virtuoso bassist who excelled in classical music and jazz, and who became a clinical psychologist later in life, died July 29 of a heart attack at his home in Long Beach, Calif. He was 73.

Trained as a classical musician at leading conservatories, Dr. Davis won early renown in the 1950s working with celebrated jazz musicians Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie. In the 1960s, he was one of saxophonist John Coltrane's favorite bassists and appeared on several of Coltrane's recordings.

He also performed in classical orchestras and Broadway shows and accompanied a varied list of stars that included Judy Garland, Count Basie, Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, James Brown and Minnie Pearl.

Dr. Davis maintained for many years that he had been denied positions in leading classical orchestras because he was black. He sued the New York Philharmonic unsuccessfully in the early 1970s, claiming the orchestra discriminated against him when it failed to offer him a full-time position.

Never shy about self-promotion -- he described himself on his Web site as "the world's greatest bassist" -- Dr. Davis challenged orchestras to pit him against any other bass player in a playoff. By the mid-1970s, he had drifted away from music and had become, in the words of jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, "a forgotten legend."

He turned instead to the study of psychology, receiving master's degrees from the City University of New York and New York University and a doctorate from NYU in 1982. By then, Dr. Davis had abandoned music and devoted himself to a clinical psychology practice.

After moving to California in 1986, he continued his counseling work and picked up his bass again, receiving belated praise. He toured Europe and Japan, made a recording featuring pianist Herbie Hancock and Coltrane's son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and established a foundation that awarded scholarships to underprivileged students.

In later years, he said his protracted court case against the Philharmonic kept him out of musical circulation for 10 years, but "I wouldn't be Dr. Art Davis if it hadn't happened."

Arthur D. Davis was born in Harrisburg, Pa., and began playing the piano at age 5. He later took up the tuba and string bass, studied at the Juilliard and Manhattan schools of music and graduated from Hunter College in New York. Switching easily from classical music to jazz, he performed in orchestras in Pennsylvania and New York while working with jazz trumpeter Kenny Dorham and with Roach, a groundbreaking drummer.

In 1959, Dr. Davis joined Gillespie's band and toured the world for more than two years. Settling in New York in 1961, he was a member of the NBC, CBS and Westinghouse television orchestras and often played with the studio bands of "The Tonight Show" and "The Merv Griffin Show." He won a Down Beat magazine jazz poll in 1962 and was, as critic Nat Hentoff wrote in Jazz Times magazine, "a bassist with a stunning command of his instrument."

Adept at folk and country music as well as classical and jazz, Dr. Davis toured with Peter, Paul and Mary and John Denver and performed with Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne and Barbra Streisand. In the 1960s, he appeared on several albums with Coltrane, including "Olé Coltrane," "Africa/Brass" and "Ascension."

"It all sounded good to me -- and I felt I could do a number of different fields," he said of his eclectic tastes. "I was one of the first to switch back and forth from jazz to classical."

In California, Dr. Davis taught bass at several colleges, led his own jazz combos and made a few recordings, all while maintaining his psychology practice. He often spoke to school groups about jazz and established two scholarships for students.

He developed a fingering technique for the bass and published a book, "The Arthur Davis System for Double Bass."

His wife, Gladys, died in 1995.

Survivors include three children.

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