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Life Lessons

On Wisconsin Magazine Fall 2011 Issue

Gwen Evans


Madison Bassist Richard Davis to Receive Humanitarian Award

Anita Clark – Wisconsin State Journal 1/15/03


Jazz musician and popular UW-Madison professor Richard Davis will receive this year’s humanitarian award from the city of Madison in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.


An internationally recognized jazz bassist and a mentor to musicians of all ages, Davis also works to help people understand prejudice and racism.


Mayor Sue Bauman, who announced the award Wednesday, called Davis a true humanitarian.


His “commitment to build bridges of mutual respect and understanding between all people has been a positive force for change,” she said.


Davis will receive the award Monday during the 18th annual city-county observance of King’s birthday at the Madison Civic Center, 211 State St.


The event begins with freedom songs at 5:30 p.m. and a program at 6 p.m.


A Chicago native, Davis recalls being the painfully shy boy who was the only black student in the orchestra at DuSable High School. He also recalls how a teacher, Walter Dyett, kept him on track well into his professional career.


“He was the kind of teacher you dream about,” Davis said Wednesday. “You asked him questions and he would say: ‘Come by my house Saturday and I’ll tell you the answers.’ That’s exactly what I do today. Students know I’m available.”


A man of resonant voice and hearty laugh, Davis is so popular on campus that his 48-student music history course for non-music majors is always full.


“The word gets spread around that I talk only truth,” he said. “I teach them the life of the music, the person that’s doing the music.”


Young bassists from across the country will head to Madison this spring for his 10th annual Easter weekend clinic.


Davis came to UW-Madison in 1977 after 23 years in New York City, where he became recognized as one of the world’s premier bass players. He performs regularly and will play in Japan in March.


His energetic performance and teaching schedule would seem to fill his days, but Davis, 72, jokes that he has a compulsive nature. “I’m a now person,” he said. “I call that doing it now. I don’t procrastinate.”


He created the Retention Action Project (RAP) at UW-Madison in 1998 to support minority students.


“Most people think it has to do with helping black students to stay,” he said. “But the method is educating the whites to be multicultural. I look at all of it like a big family, and I get results because they hang around with me.”


Davis also founded the Madison Institute for the Healing of Racism, whose mission is to foster racial unity through candid group discussions among people of different races. The Institute will begin a series of discussions this Saturday. Anyone interested in participating in the series can contact Davis at 255-6666.


“It’s listening compassionately with the heart,” he said. “Through teaching the oneness of humankind, which is all of us, we have a chance.”

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