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

A Tuneful Thank-You


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

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

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