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“James Gates Releases New CD Jazz with Peter Solomon by Peter Solomon Tue, May 14, 2013 Saxophonist James Gates has just released a new cd called “Gates Wide Open.” Gates is a native Richmonder who has played with many jazz greats, including Walter Bishop, Jr. and Art Blakey. He currently runs the jazz program at Virginia State University but hasn’t let his performing career slide. He’s playing a CD release party tonight (5/14) at Capitol Ale House, part of the Richmond Jazz Society’s Guest Educator Concert series. I caught up with James Gates recently and he told some fascinating stories about his musical background. This interview was originally broadcast Monday night (5/13) on WCVE Public Radio.     play stop mute 00:00 08:36 James Gates Releases New CD - James Gates Monday Midnight 5-13  mixdown.mp3 ” - PETER SOLOMAN

 WCVE RADIO - IDEA STATIONS 

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“ Review: James "Saxsmo" Gates at the Capital Ale House (May 14)  BY PETER MCELHINNEY Nobody does what Gates does better than Gates. In front of a near-capacity crowd at the Capital Ale House (slightly delayed by the need to clear the room of a crowd still buzzing from the sold-out first set) he soars, preaches, rocks and reflects through a full-throttle 90-minute set drawn from his new CD “Gates Wide Open.” The saxophonist establishes his mainstream jazz chops early on with a blazing version of Chick Corea’s “Spain,” but straightforward communication is more Gate’s thing than sophisticated harmonic acrobatics. As the set develops through funky workouts and lyrical interludes -- including a “I Cry Out for You” written for his late mother and played seated at stage edge, feet dangling like a little boy’s from a grown-up chair -- categorization seemed beside the point. As much James Brown as Charlie Parker, Gates pours heart and soul into his playing with such charismatic commitment that you can’t dislike his music without disliking him. And with his ready smile, boundless energy and joyful willingness to dive into the audience with his horn to embrace everyone in the creative process, disliking him is something he simply won’t let you do. Gates’ rollicking attack is supported by a backing band doubled in almost every category: two percussionists, two pianists, two guitars, along with trumpet and bass. All were from Richmond, each gets their turn in the spotlight and each is celebrated by Gates as exemplars of local talent too often taken for granted. The same can be said of the just-a-bit-larger-than-life Gates. ” - PETER MCELHINNEY

 STYLE WEEKLY MAGAZINE 

Copyright 2020 Saxsmo Publishing. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 

 

 

“When I grow up I'm going to play like this Cat! - Bill McGee James Saxsmo Gates is one of my heros.... High Energy and intensity all the time... When I grow up I'm going to play like this CAT!... Now I hear from reliable sources that he has a new CD coming out called It's Time... and you know that's right... It's time for Gerald Albright, Walter Beasley, Kim Waters, Richard Elliot, Dave Koz, Boney James, and Kenny what's his name to get out of the way and let SAXSMO have the spolight for a while.... I hear Fred Wesley makes a guest appearence on the new CD with all the other 804 Jazz Allstars.... look out Jazz world Gates is BACK! A superb collection. It carries the listener away. - Lorelei Brown The combination of jazz and Latin rythms is intoxicating. I find it relaxing, sensual, and stimulating. I cannot stop listening! James "Saxsmo" Gates is absolutely fantastic!! - Peter S. Burg Versatile, High Energy, Lyrical, Fluid, Proficient, Virtuoso, pick a few they all fit. Listen to Gotta Move On, Friendship, Billy Bee, Perfect timing and Six Minutes. I rest my case. This brother is one of the best, it's just a matter of time... the world will know "SAXSMO"!   SmoothJazz.com Review - Scott O'Brien  Get ready for some funk, some old school, a little Gospel, and some downright inspiring sax playing from a guy who was known for his high-stepping style and heart-stopping solos in the Virginia State Marching Band back in the day. I can assure you… he’s still delivering those heart-stopping solos. They’re all over IT’S TIME, James Saxsmo Gates’ third solo release. What’s with the name? Well, at VSU his classmates started calling him “Satchmo” after Louis Armstrong, because of how he practiced. Respecting the fact that there could only be one “Satchmo,” he suggested they change his nickname to “Saxsmo,” and that one’s stuck with him all these years. While there’s just not room here to run down James’ extensive resume, I’ll just mention that he’s a graduate of Berklee, has gigged with some of the best, and in addition to being a successful solo artist has been a music educator for many years. Now let’s get to the exuberant tunes on this project… the energetic: “It’s Time,” “Genesis” and “A Change Within;” the festive: “Sunset Bay;” the sweet: Luther’s hit “I’d Rather;” the inspirational: “I’ll Write a Song for You” and “I Know What God Has Done” featuring Robbie Cunningham; and the just plain fun, like “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” and “Sexophone.” Behind him is an exceptional group of musicians from the Virginia area, including the awesome Bill McGee on trumpet and Flugelhorn. James Saxsmo Gates’ IT’S TIME feels good. It reflects perfectly this man’s talent and soul. It’s definitely hot stuff!   ” - Various

 CDBaby 

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Jazz: Causing a Rumpus

A Richmond Jazz Society gala celebrates the Duke.

by Peter McElhinney

April 24, 2002

"The Renaissance Ballroom was nice, but we had to turn people away last year," Brown says. "We needed a place that had ambiance, but afforded everyone a reserved seat, and one that had a dance floor."
 

The theme of this year's event, "A Rumpus in Richmond," comes from a classic Duke Ellington piece, recorded in July 1940 by the classic Duke band featuring, among others, Ben Webster and Jimmy Blanton. "Like many compositions, it was written and recorded first and given a title later," says Doug Richards, whose Great American Music Ensemble (G.A.M.E.) will perform its rendition of the piece at the event.


The rumpus in question was a result of Ellington's interracial fraternization. "Duke was always a ladies man, and the lady in Richmond was not the same skin color," Richards says. "There were people in this area at that time that didn't take kindly to that sort of thing." 


Richard's arrangement promises to be a highlight of his set, which will include a number of other Ellington pieces. Renowned Richmond violinist Joe Kennedy Jr. and singer Rene Marie — both featured on Richard's yet-to-be-released "It's All in the G.A.M.E." CD — will also perform with Richards's big band.


"Rumpus" will also spotlight a favorite performer from the past two events, Brown says. "Many of the surveys that we did said that a particular artist — James Gates Jr. — stole the show," he says. "So this year we are giving him a special showcase."


"We asked him, 'If you could have a national artist appear with you, who would it be?' He said pianist Alex Bugnon. I guess the moon and the stars were in the right place," Brown says, "because it all came together." Alex Bugnon and his ensemble, featuring Gates, who often goes by "Saxsmo," and guest vocalist Carlton Blount, headline the second half of the show.


There will also be dancers from the VCU Department of Dance and Choreography, Eric E. Stanley's "Bebop, Boogie and Blues" revue to fill the spaces between acts, and a host of other diversions. 

"This year we will have a whole floor of gaming and horseracing," Brown says. "There will be separate music in the gaming room; it gets so loud because people are screaming at the tables." The winners can cash in their chips for chances to win prizes at the end of the evening.

The real money raised goes to support the broad range of services offered by the society, including performances for senior citizens, schools, community centers, "Make Music With Me" kids bands, a monthly guest-educator series and other musical activities.


"We just started a brand new program, an after-school Jazz Academy at Pine Camp," Brown says. "James Gates is the principal, and many of the area's top musicians are instructors."


So the celebration once intended to mark the completion of the Jazz Society's mission has become a funding engine for its continuation. It's a good cause, and a great party. S
 

Virginia Jazz Gala 2002 "A Rumpus in Richmond … Celebrating the Duke" happens April 27, 7 p.m. - 1 a.m. in The Richmond Convention Center. Tickets cost $100 and seats are reserved. The event is black tie (optional) with a '40s jazz-age theme and decor.

Copyright 2020 Saxsmo Publishing. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Video: Local Jazz Veteran James "Saxsmo" Gates Making Push With New Album 

BY PETER MCELHINNEY

Can a bright, cheerful, funky instrumental change the world -- or at least win a Grammy? Longtime area jazzman James “Saxsmo” Gates is giving it a full-hearted try.

On the surface, the video to his new single, “We Can Make It Together,” is a love letter to Richmond, or more specifically to Jackson Ward. In its heyday, Second Street was the Southern Harlem with the Hippodrome Theater host to giants such as Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. Nattily dressed, improvising on the melody, Gates is its undaunted present.

Two young kids, drawn to the music, playing as Gates plays, represent the future. In the end, they push through the crowd to where the saxophonist is in full swing at the feet of the statue of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Together, in the context of the video, means harmony with people and with the past, at least with those parts of it that inspire forward movement.

“That is why I wrote this song,” Gates says. “Even if just some of us would come together, to work hard to help each other, all of us would make it. If we all just come together in politics, in the classroom, in our relationships, we could make a big improvement. It all depends on passion, love and dignity.”

The single and the forthcoming album of the same name are Gates' big push for wider success. He’s enlisted prominent friends from his long career. Monster Virginia Commonwealth University alumni drummer Nate Smith is on the record. So is guitarist Freddie Fox, husband of Evelyn "Champagne" King and Gates' Berklee School of Music Classmate.

Gates has put together a local team to promote the song as widely as possible. “We are hitting this hard,” he says. “Our expectations are high. It’s a challenge. Like riding a bull, if you aren’t ready, you might get hurt.”

After all, it’s only changing the world. As in baseball, if you want to score, you need to get on base. The easiest way to start is with a single.

Copyright 2020 Saxsmo Publishing. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

James Gates Jr. and three fellow jazzmen salute their forefathers in a musical tribute. 

A Tuneful Thank-You

 

BY EDWIN SLIPEK JR

Tribute to Charlie Parker
Willow Lawn Food Court
Thursday May 27
6-8 p.m.
643-1972

When Richmond saxophonist James Gates Jr. says "thank you," he doesn't fool around. On Thursday, May 27, he and three fellow Richmond jazzmen will play the Willow Lawn food court in a two-hour jam and recording session saluting Charlie "Bird" Parker. In Gates' estimation Parker was "one of the greatest — maybe the greatest — saxophonist who ever lived."

"This is the perfect opportunity to show our respect to the artists who have done things for us," says Gates, 39, with characteristic effervescence. "I am so excited about this."

Although Gates learned to toot a horn long after Parker died, he says he owes a debt of gratitude to the Kansas City-born musician who died in 1955 while only in his mid-30s.

"My mother was a big, big, big, big reason why I know about these artists," says Gates of his mom, Della Terry, who was once a dancer at Harlem's Cotton Club. "She'd be cooking and cleaning while I was practicing, and she'd always encourage me: 'That sounds good, do it again,' or if something wasn't quite right, 'Try it again.'"

She also had a lot of records. "When I first heard Byrd, my goodness, that is it. I never heard anybody like that." Gates' eyes widen.

Gates' appreciation for the lions of jazz developed further while he was studying music at Virginia State University and later the Berklee School of Music in Boston. As some of his fellow students talked about musical family traditions, Gates says he developed a richer appreciation for his father, James Gates (known simply as "Boo" in local jazz circles). The elder Gates' tenor saxophone frequently took him on the road playing with bands while Gates was growing up.

In 1988, a few years after finishing Berklee, Gates decided it was time to put together a gig of his own at Boston's 1369 Jazz Club. He called veteran pianist Walter Bishop Jr. to join him.

"Little Gates, I can't do it, but I know someone who can,'" Bishop responded, "You call Walter Davis Jr.'"

"So, what do you want?" Davis growled upon receiving the phone call. Gates told him about the upcoming engagement.

"Can you play?" Davis snapped.

Gates hesitated and the pianist was on him: "Hurry up. You aren't ready to play with me if you have to think about it."

Taken aback and agitated, Gates repeated the question, "Do you think you can do this gig? Look, either you can do it or you can't."

Davis agreed, appreciating Gates' candor.

"How will I know you when I pick you up at the airport?" asked Gates.

"You'll see me," Davis replied, "I'm the ugliest person on the planet."

The two became fast friends: "He treated me like a son," says Gates.

Part of what drives Gates, who teaches jazz band, improvisation and film scoring at the Governor's School for Government and International Studies here, is that many of the older musicians with whom he's worked, stressed that they weren't going to live forever. He would have to keep the music alive. 

"There is a reason that I met all these people," says Gates with a lump in his throat, "There is a real reason. When you are real to the music, you have to dig as opposed to just playing the music."

What the Willow Lawn session — also featuring Clarence Seay on bass, Robert "Bob" Hallahan on piano and drummer Howard Curtis — will attempt is to recapture the spirit of bebop music from the 1940s to mid-'50s when the style was at its peak. Bebop was created because big band sounds were easily stolen. Gates says bebop was different: "You can transcribe bebop, but you can't play it."

Promises Gates of the Richmond Jazz Society-sponsored gig: "We're going to take ourselves out of the equation and bring the guys who are dead and gone to the

Copyright 2020 Saxsmo Publishing. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Review: James "Saxsmo" Gates at the Capital Ale House (May 14) 

 

BY PETER MCELHINNEY

Nobody does what Gates does better than Gates. In front of a near-capacity crowd at the Capital Ale House (slightly delayed by the need to clear the room of a crowd still buzzing from the sold-out first set) he soars, preaches, rocks and reflects through a full-throttle 90-minute set drawn from his new CD “Gates Wide Open.”

 

The saxophonist establishes his mainstream jazz chops early on with a blazing version of Chick Corea’s “Spain,” but straightforward communication is more Gate’s thing than sophisticated harmonic acrobatics. As the set develops through funky workouts and lyrical interludes -- including a “I Cry Out for You” written for his late mother and played seated at stage edge, feet dangling like a little boy’s from a grown-up chair -- categorization seemed beside the point. As much James Brown as Charlie Parker, Gates pours heart and soul into his playing with such charismatic commitment that you can’t dislike his music without disliking him. And with his ready smile, boundless energy and joyful willingness to dive into the audience with his horn to embrace everyone in the creative process, disliking him is something he simply won’t let you do.

 

Gates’ rollicking attack is supported by a backing band doubled in almost every category: two percussionists, two pianists, two guitars, along with trumpet and bass. All were from Richmond, each gets their turn in the spotlight and each is celebrated by Gates as exemplars of local talent too often taken for granted. The same can be said of the just-a-bit-larger-than-life Gates.

Copyright 2020 Saxsmo Publishing. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

American Fabric 

In the lead-up to the festival, local players are keeping jazz music’s legacy alive.

 

BY PETER MCELHINNEY

Richmond’s James “Saxsmo” Gates performs with his student and rising local star Dexter Moses. They perform at the Dark Room on Tuesday, Aug. 6.

It's a solid week of Richmond jazz, even if the festival kicks things into overdrive. Things get off to a serious start on Tuesday at the Hof Dark Room, with a two-alto-sax hit from longtime champion James "Saxsmo" Gates and rising star Dexter Moses. 

 

Wednesday features recent Virginia Commonwealth University grad Chet Frierson's birthday bash at the Vagabond Rabbit Hole. On Monday, after the multigenre whirl of the festival, Charles Owens celebrates two simultaneous new releases featuring his trio and local all-star R4nd4zzo Bigb4nd. 

 

The Gates-Moses matchup has a deeply multigenerational Richmond resonance. Moses impressed local audiences in February when he was brought onstage with Branford Marsalis' Quartet at the University of Richmond. Gates, the director of jazz studies at Virginia State University and a cheerful stalwart of the local scene, has been Moses' teacher and mentor since they met seven years ago.

 

"It was like looking in a mirror," Gates says. "He was so energized. He had the same passion and enthusiasm I have. I took him on instantly."

 

"Our first lesson, [Gates] just sat in the middle of the living room and played like Bird [Charlie Parker], played like [John Col]Trane, played like Sonny Stitt." Moses says. "It was eye-opening, the first time I ever heard someone play like that. He really connected to the human part, showed me that this was about people. It's not just licks coming out of a book but knowing the [musical] language and being yourself. It helped me become a better person."

 

It was Moses' entree to a living legacy. Classical players vigorously reanimate the old ideas. The endpoint is less clear in the highly personal, totally improvisational world of late 1930s to early 1960s bebop, the focus of their gig. But the intent is the same. As William Faulkner wrote "The past is never dead. It's not even past." 

 

"It's important for the audience to understand this music is real. And we don't hear it enough," Gates says. "We have to keep it alive because this is the fabric of America. It's deeper than just taking out your instrument and playing. It's a place where we can all come together."

Moses agrees. "People go to social media, to other activities that don't involve other people. We're isolated in our own brokenness. It takes a community to heal ourselves." 

 

The community at the gig includes pianist Weldon Hill, bassist Michael Hawkins and drummer Kofi Shepsu. The intimate Dark Room, with its attentive audience, is an ideal place to see two generations of Richmond players bring music alive that predates them both. It's going to be a week deep in music. Might as well dive in early. 

 

Alto Summit with Dexter Moses and James "Saxsmo" Gates, the Dark Room, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 9 p.m. Admission $5.

 

Chet Frierson Birthday Bash with Morgan Burrs, Michael Hawkins and Kofi Shepsu, Downstairs at the Vagabond, Aug. 7, 9 p.m. Free.

 

Charles Owens Trio with the R4nd4zzo Bigb4nd, the Dark Room, Tuesday, Aug.12, at 8 p.m. Admission $10.

Copyright 2020 Saxsmo Publishing. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Gates & Wesley give up the funk at the Canal Club 

 

BY WEB EXCLUSIVE

It's easy to dismiss James "Saxsmo" Gates as a gifted musician caught somewhere between smooth jazz and the real deal. But it's far more difficult to discount the passion and the power that drive his live performances. Gates, who shared the stage at the Canal Club Dec. 11 with Fred Wesley, one of The Godfather's sidemen, was the hardest-working man in the building.

The expressive saxophonist played songs from his latest release, "It's Time," with dexterity and emotion. The onstage intensity heightened when Wesley was introduced and both musicians took on Wesley's songs like "For the Elders" and "No One." While Gates was clearly honored by Wesley's presence, he wasn't eclipsed by the elder statesman of funk. If some in the packed audience had come just to see Fred, they certainly got more than they bargained for with Gates and his versatile band mates. 

When the band returned after a long break between sets, it was evident that few had taken the opportunity for an early exit. Wesley soon assumed vocal duties for spirited romps through James Brown's "Doin' It to Death" and his own funk anthem "House Party." The audience chanted his name like Mr. Brown used to and Wesley ate it up.

"What's my name?"

"Fred!"

"I can't hear y'all!"

"Fred!"

"Whose yo' daddy?"

"Fred!"

The portly trombonist wasn't the only guest. A 15-year-old bassist from Hanover named Brandon Lane also shared the spotlight, turning in an impressive performance of McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now." Jerome Brailey and Larry Hextal, Wesley's fellow Parliament alumni and Richmond residents, were also introduced, along with other local musicians. 

The concert was billed as the year-end meeting of the Richmond Jazz Society, but it felt more like a family reunion.

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A Year of Music 

Our jazz critic looks back at his favorite sounds of 2019.

 

BY PETER MCELHINNEY

   James “Saxsmo” Gates                                                                                                 Ash Daniel/File

Once again, choosing a definitive best of the year is rendered impossible by the inability to go without sleep or be in multiple places at the same time. Thanks, science. 

 

And given that production time requires writing best of lists in early December, the holiday season gets short shrift. Last year that included the Butcher Brown-R4nd4zzo Christmas show at Broadberry and the gourmet food and the lovely music of a semiprivate Miramar house party on Cary Street. 

 

The rest of the year was a continuation of the multicurrent flow of the Richmond scene, with the occasional visiting artist like John Scofield, Branford Marsalis or the brilliant tangle of Richmond Jazz Festival sweeping swiftly by. The Folk Festival remains a high point, closing appropriately with local saxophonist James “Plunky” Branch’s soulful extravaganza. Homecomings were another stream in the flow: Natalie Prass at the renovated Ashland Theatre, saxman Steve Wilson at the Richmond Jazz Society and sets from Abinet Berhanu, Reginald Chapman and at least temporarily returned pianist Steve Kessler at various clubs.

 

Charles Owens carved new branches to his sound, first with the R4nd4zzo band and later with a full string section arranged. Trey Pollard, the arranger of the latter, showed his compositional chops with a live performance of his debut classical CD “Fixed Idea.” Percussionist Hector Barez brought his “Labertino Del Coco” bomba project to town for two performances prior to playing the Kennedy Center and high-profile concerts in Puerto Rico. Local big band legend Doug Richards celebrated his retirement from Virginia Commonwealth University with a performance and forthcoming recording featuring an elite group of players from Virginia and beyond. Rex Richardson and Taylor Barnett had killer faculty recitals at VCU. The school’s recitals, which are always inspiring, typically brilliantly performed, and frequently free, remain one of the best musical values in town.

 

Some of the deepest currents were supplied by a trio of veteran musicians, bassist Mike Hawkins, pianist Weldon Hill and the irrepressible James “Saxsmo” Gates. They were the rock around which a constellation of younger players eddied, including drummers Kofi Shepsu, Billy Connely and Billy Williams, and saxophonists Chet Frierson, Dexter Moses and Nate Clark. Two of the top local guitarists, Alan Parker and Morgan Burrs, have done a couple of memorable shows together but have not yet made a duet appearance. 

 

Its been a fun ride if it all becomes a bit of a blur, defined by moments of exceptional clarity: The packed performance of Daniel Clarke’s band with J.C. Kuhl, Brian Jones, Cameron Ralston and John Winn at Derbyshire Baptist Church. The Answer Brewpub memorial concert for Quy Suong Pham, who drowned in a local ironman race. Andy Jenkins’ dramatic collapse at the end of a stripped-down performance of his new EP at Spacebomb Studios. The merging of School Work and Michael Formanek and son at the end of the gig at Candela Books. Leading saxophonist Al Regni, for decades a principal at the New York Philharmonic, the New York Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera, playing for a small crowd on a Saturday night at the Barrel Thief. Erin and the Wildfire at Riverrock. Marlysse Rose Simmons sitting in with Big Lazy at Poe’s Pub. Yuko Mabuchi’s ebullient set at the Richmond Jazz Festival. The stunning impact of hearing renowned Virginia Opera guest soprano Inna Dukach let loose on a Friday morning at 10 a.m. at Barry Bless’ Breakfast Cabaret at Crossroads. Singer and songwriter Skylar Gudasz, when asked by a fan about a song not in her set at Black Iris, going to an upright piano and playing it for an audience of one. 

 

Apologies to any omitted. As at the Oscars, the music is starting to play. 

Copyright 2020 Saxsmo Publishing. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 

DESIRÉE ROOTS AND JAMES “SAXSMO” GATES TO BRING ELLA FITZGERALD’S MUSIC TO LIFE DURING 100TH BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION

During her long and stellar career, jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald won 13 Grammy awards, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and sold more than 40 million albums for her flexible, wide-ranging voice that could imitate every instrument in an orchestra.

 

On April 25, Desirée Roots and James “Saxsmo” Gates will again combine their musical genius in recognition of Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday.  Fitzgerald, who was born April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Va., died in 1996 at age 76. Yet, her extraordinary voice and musical abilities continue to be recognized throughout the world.

 

In “Ella at 100,” Roots will perform two sets of Fitzgerald’s most noted songs at the Virginia Repertory Theatre in a one-night performance. Accompanied by a 14-piece orchestra that will include some of Richmond’s most acclaimed jazz musicians, the performance will be under the musical direction of Gates. Joining Roots onstage will be Scott Wichmann as Frank Sinatra, Billy Dye as Louis Armstrong, and Anthony Cosby as Nat “King” Cole.

 

“There are performances celebrating Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday taking place from New York to Los Angeles,” says Adrienne P. Whitaker, a Virginia Repertory Theatre board member.  ” I am thrilled the Virginia Repertory Theatre is hosting a show here in Richmond.  And, I can’t think of anyone better to play the jazz legend than our very own jazz star, Desiree Roots.  I can’t wait!”

 

Roots and Gates enjoy distinct and fond memories of Ella Fitzgerald, whose six-decade career led to her crowning as the most popular female jazz singer in the United States.

 

Roots, a talented and well-known singer in Richmond and other parts of the United States, first regaled audiences in a local performance of “The Wiz” at age 13. Gates, director of Jazz Studies at Virginia State University, is a brilliant and popular saxophonist who also hails from Richmond. Having known one another since childhood, Roots and Gates have produced several of their own recordings and have performed together numerous times.

 

Roots was exposed to Fitzgerald’s music during her childhood in a home where jazz and other music forms literally flowed like water. Roots’ father, the late James H. “Jimmy” Roots Jr., was a pianist, organist and vocalist for gospel singer Rosetta Tharpe during the 1940s and 1950s.  Desiree Roots’ mother, Sarah, sang background for Tharpe.

 

Young Desiree, then a budding musical prodigy herself, loved to listen to the sounds of Art Tatum, Della Reese, Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughan. But it was Ella Fitzgerald’s sound that left a special place in Roots’ heart.

Desirée Roots

 

“I remember Ella Fitzgerald in a movie where she was on a school bus singing ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket,’ ”

 

Roots recalled, adding how much the song captivated her.

 

Years later, after graduating from Virginia Union University with a degree in music, education and philosophy, Roots began performing the jazz, gospel and classical sounds of her favorite artists. Many of those performances have included Ella Fitzgerald’s music.

 

“I did a tribute at  the Second Street Festival in 1998 or 2000;  it was the Showmobile,” Roots says. She recently found a water damaged photograph of the performance behind her computer desk. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I remember that day.’”

 

Five years ago Roots also got a chance to perform Fitzgerald’s music, along with that of Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson, during a performance at Richmond’s Centerstage. In a newspaper interview before the performance, Roots acknowledged that performing Ella’s songs could be challenging because of the vocalist’s renowned scatting abilities.

 

“Ella’s voice, to me, is so melodic, so effortless,” she says.  “She has been compared so many times to an instrument. It’s hard to explain, but her voice is almost spiritual. With the songs that I’ve selected for the show, I will be in that zone.”

 

Indeed, Roots shared a story about one of her performances at a Richmond  restaurant and night spot in which a divorced couple attended, having been tricked into going there by their sons. Roots performed the “Second Time Around” and the next time the couple attended her performance at the same place, their sons were nowhere in sight. After being divorced for 20 years, the couple eventually remarried, after saying to Roots: “Your voice does something for us.”

 

Roots hopes that her fans and followers who attend the April 25 performance will leave with the same reaction. “I want the impact on her music to be for the audience to say, ’Wow, that was an awesome show!’”

 

Gates, the production’s musical director is convinced that Roots “is the only person who can give justice to Ella Fitzgerald.”

He should know. Like Roots, Gates also hails from a musical family. His father, the late James Bryant “Boo” Gates Sr., played saxophone for Della Reese’s band, as well as other well-known musicians. In addition to his work at VSU, Gates’ own resume includes performances with Art Blakey, Larry Carlton, Jeff Lorber, Alex Bugnon, Cyrus Chestnut, Chris Botti, Billy Kilson, Terrance Blanchard and many others.

Yet, being tapped by Roots, who conceived staging the Ella Fitzgerald performance and tribute at the Virginia Repertory Theatre, was an “humbling” experience, says Gates.

 

Both musicians recognize the importance of continuing the legacy of performers such as Fitzgerald and others.  In 1980, as a freshman at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Gates learned that Ella Fitzgerald would be performing in the Boston Symphony Hall. Gates decided to wait until the end of Fitzgerald’s performance, in the pouring rain, just to get a chance to speak with her. His diligence was rewarded. Upon exiting the hall and about to enter a white limousine, Fitzgerald noticed the young music student standing in the rain. When Gates introduced himself, so impressed was Fitzgerald that she serenaded him with the song “I’m Singing in the Rain,” says Gates.

 

Before departing, Fitzgerald left Gates with words that he still remembers. “Young man, make sure that you continue to get good grades, keep the music alive. We need young lions like yourself to preserve the music.”

TUESDAY, APRIL 25, 2017

7 p.m. performance

The November Theatre

Virginia Repertory Theatre

114 W. Broad St. Richmond, VA 23220

Tickets $35 – $100

Prices subject to change

(804) 282-2620

contact@virginiarep.org

Copyright 2020 Saxsmo Publishing. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

FeaturedJanna M. Hall

FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION: JAMES “SAXSMO” GATES KEEPS MUSIC ALIVE

 

By Janna M. Hall | CEO, Leap Innovative Group
 

www.LeapInnovativeGroup.com

What makes a musician great? What qualities, beliefs, and mindsets are required for success as an artist? Why the need for music at all?

 

Though the answers seem simple, there’s much complexity to the ever-evolving music industry. True artistry lies in understanding how it both defines and shifts the culture and staying committed to growing as it itself grows. There’s also a great need, as a musician, to keep music alive amidst all its changes.

James “Saxsmo” Gates grew up understanding that music isn’t just a means through which we enjoy life, but it is life. Getting his start as a musician as early as 3rd grade, Gates saw first-hand how music serves as the driving force behind Blacks’ livelihood. His mother danced for the Cotton Club, and his father, saxophonist James Bryant “Boo” Gates Sr., played and traveled with legends like Della Reese, Redd Foxx, and Curtis Mayfield. When they weren’t performing, they were entertaining, and any given day of the week he’d find friends and family gathered in the living room enjoying live jazz. For Gates, it wasn’t just music; jazz has always been a lifestyle.

 

“It was deep,” he remembers. “My parents moved the furniture to one side of the house and would listen to jazz and start dancing. It was the number one thing in our household.”

“No matter how many times you hear how good you are, you need to be humble, practice, and keep music primary.”

Without a doubt, Gates inherited his love for the culture. What first began as spectatorship soon became direct involvement, and Gates and his siblings were trying their own hands at becoming musicians. His mother insisted that her children be involved in music and sports; to her, it was the vehicle to developing interpersonal skills and challenging oneself.

 

“Saxsmo” Gates initially took to playing the recorder, but his attention soon shifted to the saxophone. In the years that followed, Gates used the saxophone as a security blanket of sorts. It became his friend, confidant, and refuge from the harsh reality of grade school. Music got him through his toughest moments, and undoubtedly shaped him into the man he is today.

 

This is why he’s so adamant in shaping the young musicians of today. He remembers how instrumental music became during his most trying times, and remains confident that though the industry has shifted, its impact and importance remains the same.

Today, he’s the Director of Jazz at Virginia State University, showing students exactly what it means to be a musician in today’s world, even if you didn’t grow up with music pumping through your veins. He not only teaches the craft itself, but also delves into the question, “Why music?”

 

“[Music] touches on every aspect of education,” he remembers. “It teaches math, science, foreign language, history. The creativity is in our DNA, but music classes help bring all of the nuances out from the inside.”

 

Gates also believes that music brings comfort and confidence. He’s a living testimony; his earliest experiences with music revolve around the comfort his saxophone brought him during adolescence.

 

“It’s a breeding ground for confidence,” he says. “When you really concentrate on what you have naturally, you’re unstoppable. My students find themselves through music.”

 

Once tapped into, that confidence needs developing, and Gates believes there are countless way to make that happen.

 

“When I was growing up, we didn’t have many ways to see musicians other than watching TV or seeing them in person. But nowadays, you have YouTube, and you can learn how to play an instrument from watching a video.”

 

The biggest difference between his generation and the musicians of today, is that their opportunities to see live musicians up close are slimmer. We live in the digital age, and everything is done on the computer, including the consumption of art. To remedy this, Gates ensures they’ve seen live musicians up close and personal by playing his saxophone on the first day of class. Where many teachers would greet students one by one as they enter, Saxsmo Gates is in the zone, practicing the saxophone and not saying a word. He does this for as long as it’s necessary, and then discusses with the students what they just heard: the perfecting of a craft.

 

To build on this practice, Gates also welcomes other professionals into the room. Vocalists, percussionists, drummers, bass players, and more visit his classrooms to saturate students with music being played on a professional level.

 

“It’s all inspirational,” he says. “I keep it interesting and improvise, because students get bored quickly.”

His inspiration is critical; Gates believes the key to reaching a world with fully developed artists is the inspiration to keep music primary. To him, it’s secondary in far too many artists’ life, and they’ve allowed the feeling that they’ve “made it” to replace hustle with complacency.

 

You need to stay humble,” he advises. “No matter how many times you hear how good you are, you need to be humble, practice, and keep music primary.”

 

Keeping music primary isn’t about quitting your day job and pursuing music full-time, either; no, Gates says that it’s all in your dedication to your craft despite other obligations. For example, he had a full-time job at Aetna for ten years and used every lunch break to practice his saxophone. On hot days, he’d practice under the shade of a large tree, and on rainy days, he’d play in the car. Everyone knew that Gates was the musician, because he kept it primary in his life. That’s the making of a musician, the making of a true artist.

When it comes to the Richmond music scene, Gates believes that this city’s large pool of musicians have the opportunity to make something magnificent take place beyond the confines of the 804 area code.

 

“I hear too much about ‘local musicians’,” he says disappointedly. “That’s the saddest thing on the planet! When you go to DC, they’re not calling themselves local. In New Jersey, New York, they’re not local artists. You call them by their name. You can be from somewhere and not be local. We have to get that out of people’s minds, and stop saying that ourselves, otherwise it’ll keep happening. We have to change our mindset in order to move further than where we are now.”

He’s right. This city is bursting at the seams with undeniable talent that consider themselves “local” when they have the power to dominate beyond the city’s limits.

 

Above all, musicians in Richmond have one responsibility, a responsibility placed upon Gates by Ella Fitzgerald herself back in 1980 at the Boston Symphony.

 

“Promise me that you’ll always keep music alive,” she said to him.

 

And that’s exactly what he’s done. 

Copyright 2020 Saxsmo Publishing. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

The Shape of Jazz to Come: VSU tackles new program 

 

DECEMBER 02, 2015 

BY RICH GRISET
STAFF WRITER

James Gates, on the saxophone, leads a jam session during Monday Night Jazz at Virginia State University.

James Gates is crouched onstage. His face is locked in a grimace, but the sounds he makes are as close to an expression of the human soul as music gets.

 

 

I

James Gates, on the saxophone, leads a jam session during Monday Night Jazz at Virginia State University.

It’s Monday Night Jazz at Virginia State University, and Gates, director of jazz at the school, is making his saxophone wail. For the past three years, Gates and his students have taken the stage at VSU’s Foster Hall every Monday while school is in session. And now, Gates’ efforts to bring a jazz studies program to the university are becoming a reality.

 

The son of a tenor saxophone player and a former dancer at the famous New York night spot the Cotton Club, Gates grew up in Richmond surrounded by jazz musicians. It’s this kind of community that Gates hopes to foster at VSU.

 

“I saw how tight this became as an extended form of family,” Gates says. “Growing up and seeing that, that’s what I wanted to do.”

 

Gates was brought to the university five years ago to start a jazz studies program, which is in the midst of receiving the final OK to begin classes next fall. While he was going through the steps to create the program, Gates formed the Dr. Billy Taylor Jazz Ensemble to perform at Monday Night Jazz. The ensemble is named for a famous jazz pianist, composer and educator who attended VSU. The jazz studies program will also be named for Taylor.

 

Roughly a dozen students perform at each Monday Night Jazz, which is free and open to the public. Using classical jazz as a foundation, the ensemble has expanded its reach to include other music forms, including R&B, Latin and pop music.

 

“It just brings a different atmosphere to the campus,” says Quinton Jones, a 23-year-old keyboard player from Dinwiddie. “This is the first official jazz band that we’ve had.” 

 

JaCari Diggs, the band’s other regular keyboardist, says he was more into R&B and hip-hop than jazz before he joined the ensemble.

 

“People really need this, especially at [Historically Black Colleges and Universities],” says the 20-year-old from Hopewell. “One of the things you don’t always hear about is the importance of jazz. Once you get into this music, it changes you.”

 

The weekly performances are Gates’ attempt to recreate the jazz sessions he sat in on in college, which he says are critical for a musician’s development.

 

“In Petersburg, there’s not a whole lot of venues to play,” Gates explains. “This is like a lab. It prepares them for the real thing, they’re just not getting paid.” 

 

Everything about the event is run by the students, who also record and film each session. Though it hasn’t happened yet, they hope to broadcast the sessions live on the university’s radio station in the future.

 

“If you’re a musician, you get a lot out of it,” says Kelvin Parker, a 23-year-old guitar player from Sussex County. “It’s a great program; it just needs a little bit more exposure.”

Copyright 2020 Saxsmo Publishing. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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