Thursday, April 18, 2013

An Interview with the Jazz Singer Giacomo Gates Part 1 of 2

With the recent release of his latest album MilesTones, Giacomo Gates sings the music of Miles Davis, I thought it would be timely to do a interview with Jazz Singer, which he graciously conducted with me on March 14, 2013 at his home in Bridgeport, CT


NOJ : You are now a CT resident.  Have you been raised and born here?

GG: Yes I was born and raised right here in Bridgeport and lived here until I was about 24 or 25 year old, when I went to Alaska to work construction for what I originally thought was going to be a year.

NOJ :Let’s get back to your early childhood though. You have said in past interviews that your Dad played violin and was a pretty good whistler. Was he your musical influence?

GG: In some ways…he played classical violin and gypsy violin, but not for a living. When he would sing, he kind of sang like Cab Calloway. He was born in Italy and brought here at a very young age, grew up in West Haven, CT. A talented guy….between music, he started out repairing cars and then ended up building sport racing cars, eventually doing metal sculpture. He only made it through the fifth grade but he ended up lecturing at Yale on torch metal sculpture. He eventually moved to California in 1966 and continued with metal sculpture full-time.

NOJ :Getting back to his musical tastes. What did your Dad listen to that influenced you?

GG: He used to listen to big bands. Of course Basie, Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway and with that music, I heard singers like Jimmy Rushing, Cab, and later Joe Williams. I took guitar lessons and started playing when I was eight, so I was around the music early on. When I was sixteen I would play weddings, but back then the music (expected at weddings) was
the (Great American) songbook. So I got hip to this music even though it was not the music of my time. I used to get hollered at by the other band members, because I would mess up the chord changes because I’d be distracted by the words and lost my place. I thought the lyrics were interesting, they were attractive to me.

NOJ :So you played guitar. Did you sing in those early wedding bands?

GG: No. I did sing, but not in the wedding bands. I’d sing standards; I’d sing do-wop on the corner with four or five guys. I grew up around the ( music of) the Stylistics, the Temptations, Smokey, Marvin Gaye and James Brown, but my
friends would were listening to the Rolling Stones and the Doors, and so was I too, but at the same time I was also listening to Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk and Count Basie and Sinatra, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross…. so that‘s what I really dug.

Of course when you’re a kid and you’re hanging out, you listen to what everybody else is into.

NOJ : Having played guitar has it influenced you with the kind of players you’ve had play on your albums? Good Players like Vic Juris, Tony Lombardozzi and lately Dave Stryker three stylistically different players have all played on your records?

GG: I hope I have an ear for good musicians whether it be guitar, piano or whatever it may be. When I walk down the street I hear a rhythm section in my head anyway. I can’t help it.

NOJ : I read someplace that you went to mechanical engineering school for a little bit. Was that something your father encouraged you to do? 
GG: When I went to high school, you’re supposed to go on to college. My father didn’t care if I went to college or not. He was not a fan of education, but I was encouraged by my mother.

I liked English, I liked grammar, I liked journalism, I liked writing, I liked photography, I liked art but I was terrible at math. So what do I do… I go to engineering school…..because nobody said to me you better have a math background. So the first year I go to engineering school I’m getting physics, chemistry, algebra, trigonometry, I was struggling.

I dropped out of school and got a job in CT in construction, starting as a laborer. I started driving trucks. I started running loaders and dozers and driving tractor trailers and it was fun. I liked the outdoors and I still like the outdoors. But around here it was all reconstruction, dig up road, reshape it repave it, and that was the kind of construction I was familiar with. Then I heard about the Alaskan pipeline and I thought there was a real adventure that’s some real construction.  I gathered up some work clothes and about three hundred dollars and bought a plane ticket. People told me you can’t do that. You don’t know anybody and you don’t have a job.  I spent eleven months kicking around Fairbanks before I got the job I was looking for. I was going to give it a year and I got a job out of the (union) hall, building a road…. and they flew us to the job and we had to build our way out. It was the real deal. And that was the beginning.

NOJ : How did you make that transition from Giacomo Gates machine operator to Giacomo Gates singer?

GG: I never made a transition. I always dabbled in music. You know my father played the violin, but he always said, “Learn a trade, learn how to do something and do music, but do it for fun.” And I did, I sang for fun, I played the guitar for fun, I played in a couple of bands. When I got up to Alaska I played guitar and I’d sit-in somewhere. I wasn't expected to play like Joe Pass, not even close. I could play the blues, played a little chromatic harmonic and sang a little and I did it for fun.

"When it starts to become a job, and I know what’s going to happen, I’m gone."

NOJ : Did your fellow construction workers hear you sing and encourage you to try it full time?

GG: I can remember a couple of superintendents hearing me playing  guitar or singing and I was maybe thirty years old at the time and they were maybe fifty, and they said to me.. “…where did you get that music from, that’s not your generation?” They got a kick out of me playing and being interested in songs written 1939 or 1941.   I finally got involved in a festival in Fairbanks. The festival they had was a two week festival of classes. So whether you were a singer or instrumentalist or an ice skater or photographer or graphics artists, they taught all kind of art. I got involved in a vocal course that was taught by Chris Calloway, Cab’s daughter.  Usually, I was somewhere remote; I worked all over the state, in construction camps. I was up on the coast, dam jobs, landing strips, etc. 

I happened to be in town talking with a girl I knew and she knew I sang.  When I say I fooled around with music, I mean I took it seriously but I wasn't going to do anything with it. Then I got involved with this festival and I sang with a couple of small ensembles and some of the instructors said to me…"You've got your own sound, but you’re not going to get heard up here.   I said  “I’m not trying to get heard up here, I live up here.”  But at the same time I been a couple of places, I was in Washington state for a year, I lived in Arizona for a year, I went to Lake Charles, Louisiana for a time. And then I went back to Alaska to work.

NOJ : Did you sing in all those locations? 

GG: Yeah I would sit in.  I had kind of gotten my belly full of the adventure part the work was pretty much gone….the Pipeline was built….a lot of the roads were in.  When it starts to become a job, and I know what’s going to happen, I’m gone.

I decided to leave there and come back to Connecticut.  When I came back in the late eighties, early nineties, there was a scene. You know Philadelphia, Hartford, New York City, Boston, Rhode Island, New Jersey, there were things happening. After I got myself working locally I tried to get myself working regionally.

I caught the tail end of it where I could get in my car and go to New York and Philly, then to Pittsburgh, and Toledo, Ohio and then to Cincinnati and like that…. and it was fun. 
NOJ : So what do you consider to be your first big break?

GG:  My first big break, I’m still waiting for. (Laughter)
I don’t know… probably the first large festival that I did locally was the New Haven Jazz festival, probably about fifteen to twenty thousand people. 

In early 1990’s, maybe 1993, One of the first travel gigs I did was the Clearwater Jazz Festival in Florida. I had a cassette, remember those, and I sent the cassette to the cat and I remember him ‘cause I still speak with him once in a while, a guy named Frank Spena. He used to run Clearwater Jazz Festival, so I sent this cassette and low and behold my phone rings. He says “ Hey man, I like what your doing….wanna do the gig?” Next thing I know I’m on a plane and I m looking around and I see Randy Brecker, Ramsey Lewis, sat across the aisle from Dennis Irwin and I’m thinking, “Wow, a lot of cats are on this plane.” I guess that was the first real travel gig that was an important date to me.

NOJ : So in order to get these gigs you have to self-promote. You have to send audition tapes so to speak? 

GG: Yeah, but I had been a fan of this music ever since I was a kid. For me, the way to make this happen was to come back here, get some experience on the bandstand, learn a repertoire, polish my craft, get some ink, get a bit of a reputation, get some experience, get some gigs, maybe get a recording or two and then be able to approach a manager or an agent and say here’s what I have, I’m kind of established, can we make something happen?
In other words I thought the way to make it happen was to grow through and with the music, and then from there if somebody says  “Ah you got a foothold, your doing it right or you doing it correctly” whatever. But the way to do it is to first establish a business plan, then get your self out there and learn on the scene, learn on the best stages in the world, which is not the way I still believe is the way it happens, not for me it doesn’t.

NOJ : Are you disappointed in the way it has happened for you?

GG: No I did it the way that I felt that I needed to do it.

NOJ : Would you recommend that method for other people coming up?

GG: I would recommend becoming a computer wizard. (Laughter)
I guess, I mean, I think that in order for you to show up, you better be able to bring something to the table. So, you know, I love the music, so I mean if something happens, solid. But my whole picture of it was…. when I went to New York in 1990, I knew Thelonious Monk wasn't walking around, but I was hoping I’d bump into him.

NOJ : Well you did bump into some people because you have played with Max Roach, Lou Donaldson, Billy Taylor, Richie Cole. How did those type of gigs come about where you actually got into playing with these kind of people?

GG: Yeah well, funny stories. You know interesting ways that it happened. You can’t plan it. Richie Cole had a gig in a little club in the south end of Bridgeport the first year I came back here . I’m sure you’re hip to Eddie Jefferson. Wow, Richie Cole… let’s go down and listen to him. I know some people in there,
One guy’s an alto saxophone player and he walks up to Richie after the gig and says, “Hey man, I got a friend here who does a lot of Eddie Jefferson material.”   So Richie comes over to me and says, “Hey man, you should have come on up.”

Well I know that most musicians are not that fond of somebody sitting in, especially a singer, because they don’t know what is going to happen. So I didn’t do that, but after a while, I found out that I had to do that.  Because if you want to get up on the bandstand with them, you have to let them know that your interested.

I met Max Roach at a workshop up in Amherst, Mass. I got into an ensemble that was being led by Max. You know,  “Good afternoon Mr. Roach, my name is…” and going through  my head is,  “Wow, Max Roach.” Well he says “ OK what are you going to do?,” and I had to sing something with this quintet so I said I’ll do, “Lady Be Good” and I sang the head. The instrumentalists take their solos then I come back in and I start to sing the Charlie Parker solo with lyrics by Eddie Jefferson. Now Max is running this quintet  and when I start to sing that, Max pulls the drummer out of the seat and sits down to play. And I’m singing and thinking  “ Wow Max Roach is playing drums, while I’m singing! “ When its over Max says to me, I’ll leave out the expletive, “Hey man, I ‘aint heard that ___ in a long time!”     I got encouragement from him and he says, “What else you got?”
So some of the people that I have looked up to, and have their LP’s, you know…. I’m 16 years old.  Lou Donaldson…. got LP’s of his and end up meeting him and he let me sing a tune. Now I go to listen to him and he says “Hey Gates you want to sit in?”  Finally I had to tell him “I came for a lesson, I didn’t really come to sing. I know who you are and I respect what you’ve done” And he says “Never mind that, you want to sing or not.”

So I’m knocked at some of the folks that I listened to as a young kid on records... and was accepted by them. A lot of them have since left….I’m gassed to be accepted, because I’m from a whole ‘nother generation, a different era. I guess they were glad to see somebody who still singing that stuff.

This concludes part one of my two part interview.  In the next part we will find out about Giacomo’s musical influences, his love of storytellers and discuss his latest release MilesTonesGiacomo Gates sings the music of Miles Davis
You can read part two of the interview by linking here.

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