Arts & Events » Music

Keepers of the Flame

An upcoming jazz concert at Virginia State University aims to entice the next generation of students.


Dressed to the Nines, a concert being held this Thursday, April 27th at Virginia State University, is not just about jazz.

Along with the music, the year-ending event weaves nutrition, dance, and fashion into a holistic, interdisciplinary presentation. The goal is to communicate the university’s broad capabilities to the next generation of potential students; and to show how creative, improvised music remains a vital part of the school’s culture.

The event is the brainchild of James “Saxsmo” Gates, best known in Richmond as a powerfully imaginative alto sax player whose solos are at once rhythmically driving and melodically engaging. His day job involves working as director/coordinator of the Dr. Billy Taylor Jazz Studies program at Virginia State University, which is equally vital to his existential goal.

The musician and educator sums up his life’s mission with three words: “Keep jazz alive.”

It’s a quest to which he was born. His father was a renowned saxophone player, his mother a dancer at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club. Gates grew up around musicians. The great jazz violinist Joe Kennedy Jr. was an early teacher and mentor. He picked up his nickname –a play on Louis Armstrong’s “Satchmo” –as a teen. His father’s generation called him “Little Boo.”

Recognizing his early dedication, many older players asked him to keep the music vital. “Sometimes they had tears in their eyes,” Gates says. “They knew they were not going to be here forever. It took a long time for me to realize how deep that promise was.”

And how wide. The upcoming event reflects Gate’s insight that the challenge is not preserving a past artistic form – exemplified by the complimentary but limited concept that jazz is “America’s classical music” – but ensuring that it continues to develop and thrive.

“I want to have it all- photography, recording, dance, fashion, art- in one big gumbo, because that is what is happening in the real world,” Gates explains. “We need all of these things. And we need nutrition as part of the curriculum because if you want longevity, you have to take care of yourself. As long as jazz has been in existence, we never ate properly. Kids really need to understand this whole thing.”

Like any gumbo, the key is balancing the ingredients. Attendees at the concert, at the university’s Virginia Hall, will have the opportunity to get health information from associate professor and college chair Patricia Lynch. Students will make their own clothes for the performance under the mentorship of fashion design professor Montoya Phipps. An area at the front of the stage is reserved for dancers under the direction of Virginia State’s LaWanda Raynes. And the key ingredient- the roux binding it all together- is the kaleidoscope of musicians providing the soundtrack.

“I came up with the set list,” says Gates, “arranging ninety percent of it, including originals. The first half is going to be small groups, the second half big bands. But these are not conventional lineups” He created charts around the talents of individual players, including a young flute player whose high school music teacher would not allow a flute in his jazz band. “That is crazy, and cruel. And she is awesome,” he says. The lineup includes tubas, vibraphone, guitar. “I even wrote parts for strings … If you have players, you write for them.”

The players for the concert include alumni, former teachers, current students, and area supporters like bandmate/virtuoso trumpeter Rex Richardson, as well as premiere area singer Desiree Roots Centeio. The event is inclusive for a reason. “When you are trying to recruit new students, you want them to know that everybody can be part of the scene,” Gates says. “The university is not just offering an education, but a supportive lifetime association. We need everybody to make this thing work.”

The event will be filmed and used to represent the program to high school students both in state and beyond. “I want any student who has a vision of playing in a band to see themselves in that seat as part of our program,” says Gates. “When they know that it is possible, they will want it to join in.”

In the end, it’s all about legacy. Gates wants to honor the legacy of the departed masters. Like the program’s namesake, Dr. Billy Taylor, the Virginia State graduate who went on to be a major player and the Emmy-winning public face of jazz, interviewing hundreds of musicians on “CBS Sunday Morning.” Or the great Richmond-based jazz violinist and educator, Joe Kennedy Jr. “He taught me through middle school,” Gates said. “And more than once he made me promise. ‘Little Boo, I am not going to be here forever. You need to keep this music alive. Very alive.”

Doing that goes beyond having jazz preserved as a fragile artifact in rarefied venues. It requires supporting an entire cultural ecosystem in which it can thrive and evolve.

Keeping the music alive is not just about the music.

The Dressed to the Nines concert takes place on Thursday, April 27th at 7 p.m. at Virginia Hall on the campus of Virginia State University. Admission is free.