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Chosen One

How acclaimed Virginia saxophonist James "Saxsmo" Gates kept his jazz dreams alive.


  • Ash Daniel

James "Saxsmo" Gates plays saxophone like an R&B singer, inhabiting a soulful, melodic no man's land between straight-ahead and smooth jazz.

On his new CD, "Gates Wide Open," with sidemen including James Brown trombonist Fred Wesley and contemporary saxophonist Walter Beasley, Gates soars above a high-gloss accompaniment of synths, backbeats and backing vocals. It may be a bit too sentimental and populist for the purists and more than a bit too intense for the casual background listener. But like Gates, the music is full of big feelings and the occasional idiosyncratic surprise.

Gates talks just like he plays, in direct and enthusiastic torrents. In a private room of the 533 Club — a traditional brick oasis of Jackson Ward gentility nestled against a tangle of interstate ramps and the looming downtown biotech business park — Gates tells his life story of departures and homecomings. It starts with a monetarily challenged, musically rich childhood as the son of a noted Richmond tenor sax player and an ex-Cotton Club dancer, and ends, for now, as the coordinator of the new Billy Taylor Jazz Studies program at Virginia State University.

But Gates doesn't just tell his story. He re-enacts it, brimming with raw shock when he hears he's received a full musical scholarship to Virginia State, and later adopting the slouching cool of the youthful Branford Marsalis, who welcomed the newly arrived Gates to Boston's Berklee School of Music in 1980. At one point in the interview, Gates sits cross-legged on the floor in front of an imaginary stereo playing an imaginary horn along with a remembered Oscar Peterson record for a ghost audience of friends and neighbors invited to his home by his proud mother.

Music always came first, Gates says. Key mentors shaped his path. His baseball coach at John F. Kennedy High School, Ethan Pitts, allowed him half an hour to play his sax for the team after every practice and game, and personally arranged for the scholarship at Virginia State. "He's the one that started me going to school," Gates says. "He said ... there's no way in the world you can go anywhere without this being your vehicle."

After two years, Gates transferred, again with a full scholarship, to the more elite Berklee. The abilities of his hyper-talented schoolmates — many of them now first-rank players — almost intimidated him into giving up. Marsalis came to his room to convince him to keep trying. "You're here for a purpose," he recalls Marsalis telling him. "You were chosen." After graduating, Gates spent time in the bands of great players including Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey, who, by example, showed the importance of keeping the music vital.

He returned to Richmond in 1989 when his mother got sick. This meant following his passion in his free times, going on the road on the occasional weekend and, for many years, spending his working hours doing data entry at Aetna. Early on, a supervisor praising his work ethic noted that Gates was taking every spare moment, rain or shine, to practice. He asked him if he was willing to make the commitment to insurance over music. "If that's the choice I have to make," Gates said, "then I'll see you. You'll get the best out of me. But understand, I'm a musician." Later jobs, including teaching positions at local schools and an adjunct position at the University of Richmond, allowed a better alignment of income and interest.

Gates returned relatively late in life to school at 50, receiving a master's degree in jazz studies, magna cum laude, from North Carolina Central University. He turned down a position at the University of Miami to take up a new role at Virginia State, helping start a new jazz studies program named for the school's most famous musical alum, the late pianist Billy Taylor. It's the fulfillment of one of Gates' lifetime goals, to found an institution to keep his jazz inheritance vital.

Then again the saxophonist has a lot of dreams, a lot of energy, and is nowhere near slowing down. "'Gates Wide Open' means everything is possible," he says. "I'm loving life, and my motto for [the May 14 Jazz Society performance] is 'Time to go to work.'" S

James "Saxsmo" Gates performs with guests Tuesday, May 14, at the Capital Ale House Downtown Music Hall with two shows, at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Ticket costs range from $20 in advance to $25 day of show (cash only).