Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Gates, James (James Bryant Gates Jr.)

Gates, James [James Bryant Gates Jr.], saxophonist; b. Richmond, VA, 21 September 1959. His mother, Della Mae Gates, once was dancer at Cotton Club. His father is James Bryant Gates, Sr. Known as James "Boo" Gates, his father is a tenor saxophonist. He has performed jazz, blues and R&B extensively for over 20 years.  He has played with local bands, which provided back up for such noted stars as Bill Doggett, Patti Labelle, Esther Phillips, Chuck Berry, Curtis Mayfield and numerous others.  Gates, Sr. formed his own band called Boo Gates and the Blue Notes.  This group featured Stu Gardner who was the former music director for NBCs The Cosby Show. James's brothers are Walter James Martin, Jr., Edward Gates, Sr., and Toney M. Gates, Sr.

Better known as "Saxsmo," Gates is a Richmond native and graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in 1978.  He attended Virginia State University and later transferred under a full scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music.  He received his Bachelor of Music degree from Berklee in 1984.  Gates has traveled extensively in the United States and abroad performing with such notable artists as Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Walter Davis, Jr., Walter Bishop, Jr., The Temptations, Dianne Reeves, Roberta Flack, Marvin Gaye and most recently, Guitarist Larry Carlton and The Main Ingredients.

Saxsmo credits the forefathers and Masters of Jazz for his musical foundation and passes it along every chance he gets by serving as a teacher and instructor of jazz.  He was the founder of Jazz Studies at The Governors School for Government and International Studies, Richmond, VA in 1993, and served as its Director until May 2001.  Under his direction, the jazz band known as The Jazz Messengers participated in numerous festivals and won many awards.  The festivals included:  Toronto, Chantilly and Berklee College of Music.  The Jazz Messengers also toured London, England in January 2000. 

Gates also serves as Adjunct Professor at the University of Richmond and at Virginia Union University teaching Woodwinds and Jazz Improvisation.  Presently Gates is the head instructor for the newly formed Pine Camp Jazz Academy.  He has also taught at J. Sargent Reynolds Community College as well as, private instruction and Jazz Improvisation.

Saxsmo has received many awards and accolades for his musicianship in the local newspapers and journals.  In the community, Gates is a member of Saint Paul's Baptist Church and is the Director of the churchs orchestra.   He is a member of The Board of Directors for the Richmond Jazz Society, Maggie L. Walker Foundation and The Appomattox Regional Governors School, Petersburg, VA.  Saxsmo is also Vice President of the newly formed Jazz Composers Alliance, Inc., an organization dedicated to providing a forum for composers showcasing their original works.  Gates himself is also considered to be a prolific and inspiring composer and arranger.  He can be locally spotted playing many of his own original compositions and cunning arrangements in the various jazz venues of Richmond such as The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, The Big Gig, The Second Street Festival, fine restaurants, nightclubs and other events.

It was while he was in the third grade that his musical development started to grow. Mr. John Peyton, who was the Band Instructor at John F. Kennedy High School, was invited to speak to Gates class on music.  Little did Gates know that Mr. Peyton knew his parents and who he was and what influences had already begun to shape his life.  So, when he went around the class and asked each student what instrument they would like to play and Gates said the flute he quickly and emphatically said "No!" After several tries and several "No's!", Mr. Peyton said how about the saxophone.  Gates simply said okay.  After that, Gates began travelling with other students to the high school for group lessons with Mr. Peyton. After the fifth grade, Gates went to Norrel Annex Middle School where he met violinist Joe Kennedy.  Mr. Kennedy was playing and touring with Gates Dad. But it wasnt until he was at Mary Scott Middle School that he got his first big break in Jesus Christ Superstar in seventh grade.  On Gates's birthday that year, he saw on his bed a brand new beautiful alto saxophone.  While at Mary Scott, Gates met a fellow student, Arlo Allen, who would be his buddy and partner throughout his growing years.  Arlo played the piano and trombone.  Together, they formed their own combo.  They had their first gig at the Richmond's Children Hospital.  Arlo and Gates would play Christmas carols going house-to-house during the Christmas season. Gates got more experience by going with his Mom to nightspots.  A lot of the musicians would let him sit-in and would even give him money (five dollars).  They started calling young Gates "Lil Boo Gates" after his father. Gates started gigging professionally at the age of 11 with a band called Mark IV.  That was a large experience as he began to travel.  Arlo was also in the band and he and Gates were their youngest members.

In January 1974, Gates went to Henderson Middle School.  His instructor there was Miss Worsham who was a trumpet player from Ft. Lee, VA.
Arlo and Gates were still together and began to play in high school marching bands and with various groups in the Virginia area.  They also began to write and arrange music in their own combo as well as for the Henderson Jazz Band.

After middle school, Arlo and Gates went to different high schools.  Arlo went to John Marshall and Gates went to John F. Kennedy.  At Kennedy, Gates met up with his first instructor again, Mr. John Peyton.   Gates participated in the marching band there and he was amazed to find out that a lot of his fellow music students already knew who he was.  He participated in the All-City Jazz Band and made 2nd chair at Regionals.  Second chair did not sit well with Gates so he was determined to make 1st chair the next year.  He did and never let it go.  Gates also participated and made 1st chair in All-State Band. He began to gig with top-notch area jazz artists such as Steve Kessler, Ernestine Jackson, John Peyton, Hugo Jackson, David Williams and Tuscan Jasper.  Gates musical growth and confidence grew to an exciting new level.

While in high school, Gates along with others formed a group called Soul Zodiacs.  It consisted of piano, bass, tenor sax, alto sax and trombone.  The band performed at a lot of the area colleges, hotel functions and community events. In his sophomore year at Kennedy, Gates had an instructor Demetrius Ewing for half of a semester.  He then had a tragic accident. The class made a tape and played it for him before he sadly passed away.

James Plunky Branch substituted for a while and taught the class a lot about the business of music.  In his senior year, a new instructor took over, Mr. David Hamilton.  At this point, everything changed for Gates.  A lot of things musically took place.  Gates Baseball Coach, Mr. Ethan Pitts recognized Gates gift and talent and was very supportive to his musical efforts.  He allowed Gates to play his saxophone before every game to motivate the team.  Mr. Pitts was also responsible for helping Gates to receive a full scholarship to Virginia State University (VSU).

Having graduated John F. Kennedy High School in 1978, Gates enrolled in Virginia State University that fall.  Again, his reputation preceded him and many sought his friendship and fellowship.  It was about this time that Gates met Bill McGee who did all the writing for the marching band.  In his freshman year, Gates was elected to be the section leader.  Gates was known for his high-stepping marching style and his heart-stopping solos.  Many would await the Pre-game, half time and end of game shows just to catch a glimpse of James Gates.  During the game, in the stands he would lead the horn section in brief jazz tunes that would serve to arouse the spirits of the spectators, cheerleaders and football team.

It was at VSU where Gates received his nickname Saxsmo.  His fellow classmates started calling him Satchmo after Louis Armstrong because of how he practiced.  Being the person he is and respecting that there is only one Satchmo, he told them to change that to Saxsmo and the rest is history. Although his time at VSU was brief, he proved to be one of their most memorable students.  After two years at VSU, Gates received a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music.  This was a very difficult decision for Saxsmo, to leave friends, family and a comfortable environment.  Although it was hard, Saxsmo was hungry and wanted to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity.  So in 1980, Gates traveled to Boston, MA to enter the prestigious Berklee College of Music.

Life at Berklee proved to be very challenging and rewarding with lots of experiences whose lessons will last a lifetime.  Some of Gates most memorable moments happened in Boston.   At Berklee, he got a chance to see some of the top-notch jazz artists.  Gates once stood in the pouring rain waiting to just catch a glimpse of Ella Fitzgerald.  That wait paid off.  He saw her and touched by his persistence and determination, she sang Singing In The Rain just for him.

Wallys Cafe, called the school, is a place where aspiring musicians can go and get playing experience.  On weekends from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., musicians could go and sit-in.   Gates learned a lot of things going there and even got his own gig there in his junior year.  Also in his junior year, he got an opportunity to play with the great Dizzy Gillespie.  Those years at Berklee provided experiences and forged many lasting friendships.  In 1984, Saxsmo graduated from Berklee and proudly accepted his diploma presented by Oscar Peterson (piano).

After graduation, Gates worked at places such as City Sports and Neiman Marcus to support himself while pursing his professional music career.  It was hard in the beginning just like it is with everyone else trying to break into the business.  Often times on a Monday, he would sit in his room feeling sorry for himself and mad with his roommate and best friend Billy Kilson because he (Billy) had a gig and he didn't.  Billy told him that he needed to stop feeling sorry for himself and do something about it.  If he wanted a gig, then go out and get one.  Gates heeded those words and took matters in his own hands.  He got his first big gig at the 1369 Jazz Club with Walter Bishop, Jr. (piano), John Lockwood (bass), Ron McWater (bass) and Alan Dawson (drums).   He played more gigs at 1369 jazz club and had such players as Steve Torey (trombone), Billy Kilson (drums), and Whit Brown (bass).  At this point, the gigs started really happening and he began to play a lot with Walter Bishop, Jr.  He began to play gigs with such notable artists as Ronnie Matthews, Hilton Ruiz, Billy Pierce, Kenny Garret, Andy McGee, Joe Viola, Roy Haines and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.  Another memorable gig was with Walter Davis (piano).  After Walter Bishop wasn't available for a gig, Gates called several other piano players but they were also unavailable.  Bishop suggested Walter Davis, Jr.  Gates called Davis who wanted to know if he (Gates) could play.  Gates got irritated and asked him point blank, "Can you do the gig or not?"  Davis started laughing and finally said yes.  That was the beginning of a great friendship.

With thoughts of spreading his wings, Gates soon migrated to New York City.  Not long after he got there did Gates have an unpleasant and unfortunate experience.  He was still playing with Walter Bishop and was leaving a rehearsal when he was jumped and beaten pretty badly.  Gates stayed in New York a few more days and decided to move back to Richmond, VA.  He took a job with Olstein Temp and then with Aetna Insurance all the while still gigging with Walter Bishop and others.  At his mothers urging he re-established himself in Richmond.

In Richmond, Saxsmo was invited to play in a band called Friends, now FRENZ. He got involved with The Virginia Commission of the Arts and taught private lessons at the G Clef Studio. Another memorable moment was when one day while working at Aetna, his mother called him and told him to call Walter Davis.  He did and found out he had a gig with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at Sweet Basil in New York City.  But there was one thing; he had to get to New York ASAP.  Upon leaving work that day, Gates drove straight to Port Authority in New York and met with Mark Whitfield and Walter Davis, Jr.  He didn't sleep after the gig.  Wanting to get to know and fellowship with the musicians, he hung out with them and then drove straight to work in Richmond the next day.  He believes that you gotta do what you gotta do to get the job done. In 1990, his great friend and mentor, Walter Davis, Jr. passed.  Gates immediately knew he had to do something special.  He entered the recording industry and recorded his first CD.

Although Boo Gates retired in 1970, he came out of retirement to play with his son in March 1992. Gates Jr's. dream was realized, as they stood side-by-side on the bandstand for the very first time.  Father and son continue to play together today.

Saxsmo's current activities are numerous.  He was the founder of the jazz program at the Governors School for International Studies where he taught for nine and a half years.  He has taught at Virginia Union University and J. Sargent Reynolds Community College.  He currently teaches at the University of Richmond and an after school program  The Jazz Academy at Pine Camp.  He has played various festivals including the Hampton Jazz Festival with Billy Childs.  He has also played for Roberta Flack at the Carpenter Center and opened for Ellis Marsalis.  He performed at the Apollo and won their talent showcase three times.  He has most recently toured with Larry Carlton, guitarist, thanks to his best friend drummer Billy Kilson.  They toured in Nashville, TN, Seattle, WA, Hollywood, CA and Japan (Osaki and Tokyo).  He also plays with The Main Ingredients.

Yes I Can (1993); CMon Over To My House (2003)

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