About 25 years ago, UW-Madison graduate student Peter Dominguez had an idea for his music professor, the famed bass player Richard Davis: Why not launch an intensive teaching workshop for bass players who are young?
As in really young, starting at age 3.
It would be no small undertaking, considering the instrument they were talking about is huge. Just carrying it around requires muscles. Playing it demands strength. The top of an upright bass towers above its player, with thick, heavy strings and a fingerboard that climbs well above the musician’s shoulders.
But the idea of bringing young bassists together with master teachers for a concentrated weekend of learning and celebrating their powerful instrument struck Davis as a good idea. In his 16 years at the university, he’d noticed a vast difference in the musical maturity of an incoming double bass player versus that of, say, a freshman violin player. The violinist may have started lessons at age 5 and by age 10 was performing sonatas. The bass player, on the other hand, might not have had access to a youth-sized instrument until many years later.
So Davis, who himself started playing bass at age 15 and rose to become one of the most versatile, revered and honored bass players in history, created the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists and founded the annual Bass Conference in 1993.
A quarter century later, bass players of all ages are planning to descend on the Pyle Center near Memorial Union again this Easter weekend to play, learn and find kindred spirits who, like them, adore the largest and deepest-voiced member of the violin family.
The 25-year mark is something special, said the conference and foundation’s executive director, Catherine Harris, a former student of Davis.
While most people know about Davis’ multi-genre performance career – he’s played with musicians ranging from Sara Vaughan and Bruce Springsteen to Leonard Bernstein – and the fact that in 2014 he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, one of the nation’s premier arts honors, Harris wanted this year’s Bass Conference to focus on Davis as an educator.
So she assembled an exhibit in Memorial Library that highlights the rich legacy of the bass at UW-Madison. And she titled a special performance coming up Friday night at the Bass Conference as “A Concert for Richard.”
“I just wanted to showcase all the amazing work he’s done on campus and in Madison for bass pedagogy,” said Harris, who runs the conference as a volunteer.
“His legacy as a teacher is just as great as his legacy as a performer.”
‘Bass at Your Place’
As illustrated in the exhibit at Memorial Library, UW-Madison holds a special place in the bass world. (“We called (the exhibit) ‘Bass at Your Place,’ because Davis always wanted to have a concert titled that,” Harris said.)
The displays includes a photo taken on Union Terrace of the first gathering of the International Society of Bassists, organized by bass virtuoso Gary Karr at UW-Madison in 1967. That organization still exists today. Later, Davis broke new ground by founding a conference designed not for adults, but for young players of all levels, ages 3 to 18.
Davis was wooed from a full-time New York-based performance career by UW-Madison, and came here as a novice teacher in 1977. He soon proved himself to be a master, helping to develop the musical skills of students who would become Grammy winners or university professors themselves (including Dominguez, now professor of Jazz Studies and Double Bass at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music).
“It’s a really cool example of the Wisconsin Idea, I think,” Harris said. “It’s people who came to the university, learned something, and then went out to spread ideas all around the world.”
This year’s Bass Conference might have “six ‘generations’” of teachers, she said. As in, “Richard taught this person, who taught this person, who taught this person.
“People trace their lineage” to Davis.
‘Let’s play it’
Davis, now retired, based his teaching style on what he learned from Walter Dyett, his own music teacher at Chicago’s DuSable High School, he says.
“He didn’t put up with any jive – and he made you want to be the greatest,” said Davis, who will turn 88 in April.
“He had ideas about music that made you feel you could do anything. You know, sight-reading is a big thing with musicians. And he would say, ‘There’s no such thing. You’ve seen all the music before – just in different forms.’ And I’ve thought that ever since he said it. I think, ‘Oh yes, I’ve seen this all before. Let’s play it.’”
While named a “Jazz Master,” Davis is also known as a classical musician – and for building bridges. He also created the Retention Action Project at UW-Madison that was designed to bring together people to discuss cultural differences, and the Madison Wisconsin Institutes for the Healing of Racism, a forum to explore the history and pathology of racism.
He also designed the annual Bass Conference to include parents. Whole families come, because their support is important to a young musician’s success.
The families and faculty eat their meals together, creating a community that can trade tips.
“The parents learn a lot, too,” said Diana Wheeler, whose daughter Eva Paddock has attended the conference since sixth grade. Eva is now a junior at East High School, a member of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra and the recent winner of a youth concerto competition in Milwaukee.
“We feel very lucky to have this resource right here in Madison, and would encourage other young bass players to try it out,” Wheeler said. “There’s this wonderful atmosphere at the conference — a real celebration of basses and the people who play them.”
‘Warm and supportive’
About 40 young bassists are expected for this year’s gathering – down from a peak of about 100 in past years, Harris said. Many similar conferences, modeled on Davis’, have cropped up around the country.
Filmmakers will be at this year’s workshops to document “the transformation” that happens over the weekend, Harris said. Over its 25 years, the conference has drawn students from as far away as California, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Illinois.
That includes Dan Chmielinski, who grew up outside Chicago and traveled to Davis’ conference every year until he was 18.
He first came at age 3, playing a toddler-sized bass his parents had rigged up using a half-size cello with bass guitar strings. (Young Chmielinski adored the bass not only because of the music his parents played at home, he said, but because of the bass-playing character King Friday XIII on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”)
Now a graduate of Juilliard and a professional bassist in New York, Chmielinski recalls the “warm, supportive, loving environment” at the conference. This year he’s a conference instructor.
“Richard really sets the tone,” he said. “He’s just a wonderful, warm, caring person.”
Davis used to phone every student before the conference to introduce himself and quell the young musician’s nerves.
“I would call the house and say, ‘Is your son or daughter home? Put them on the extension, because I want the kids to know me through my voice,’” Davis recalled.
“That pays a lot of dividends,” he said. “On the phone with them, I’d say, ‘How do you feel about coming here?’ And they’d say, ‘I’m nervous.’ Know what I’d say? ‘So am I.’ So right away they felt like this person they hadn’t met yet was just like them.”
The goal of the conference “is to train bassists, to give encouragement in good surroundings,” Davis explained. “Some of the bass players who come didn’t realize there’s so many bass players in the world. So they begin to see, ‘Wow, there’s something happening here.’”