Tag Archives: Art Davis

The history of blind auditions

From Nat Hentoff’s (really) excellent At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene. This selection is from chapter 47, “The Thoreau of Jazz”:

Art Davis, who died of aheart attack at seventy-three on July 29, 3007, was, for me, the Henry David Thoreau of jazz. I’ve known many people in the jazz family with admirable integrity, but Art Davis’s was fiercely unbreakable, whatever the cost.

Art Davis was a complete musician, as authoritative in a symphonic orchestra, a Broadway pit band, network studio assignment or accompanying, as he did, Judy Garland or country music comedienne Minne Pearl.

He also became a pariah in parts of the music business for years because he insisted on breaking the color line in symphony orchestras. As I had reported in the The Reporter magazine in the late 1950s, it was not only that Jim Crow managed much of that hiring. Also, as positions opened in an orchestra, the first-chair players (all of them white) would get management to hire their best students (also white) for those chairs.

For years, Art, having been turned down by leading symphony orchestras, challenged the conductors to pit him against any classical bassist they chose in an open competition. There were no takers. In the 1970s, he sued the New York State Philharmonic for racial discrimination, and as the years went on, until the case was dismissed, Art lost a lot of the previously highly diversified work for which he had been sought. Obviously, the man was a “troublemaker”.

But because of the lawsuit, the attendant publicity and Art’s continuing challenge to put any symphonic bass part–however deeply traditional or unprecedently avant-garde–before him in competition for a gig in any world-famous orchestra, he became the major force that created “blind auditions”. It became the practice, when there was an opening for any instrument, to audition the player behind a screen so that those judging his or her abilities–Art also protested gender discrimination–could hear the music but not see the musician. He lost the lawsuit, but won the battle.

Here is William Osborne with more on blind auditions and gender.

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