By Janna M. Hall | CEO, Leap Innovative Group
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.