Thursday, April 25, 2013

An Interview with Jazz Singer Giacomo Gates Part 2

On March 14, 2013 I did a one on one interview with the jazz singer 
Giacomo Gates at his Bridgeport, CT home. We talked about his experiences  creating his career in music, his musical influences, his love of all things hip and his latest record MilesTones, Giacomo Gates sings the music of Miles DavisThis is the second part of that interview. In case you missed part 1 click here.

For my review of the album Milstones on the Huffington Post click here.

NOJ : Despite your love of the great American songbook, there are some interesting characters in the music ( that you play)  that you have identified with, that are not mainstream ... Let’s discuss some of them ... and what appeals to you about their music.

For example you sing Bobby Troupe, what is it about Booby Troupe’s music that you identify with?

GG: Bobby Troupe, interesting guy. He did a lot of things, you know a producer, composer, lyricist, television producer, married to Julie London, you know. A hipster, someone who was mainstream, but also had that edge. He had a sense of humor. He would write about things, what was going on in his life, like Route 66.

NOJ : So he was a storyteller?

GG: Yes he was a storyteller.

NOJ : And you love storytelling. So how did you get to be such a good storyteller?

GG: Because, I’ve lived a lot of stories. That’s the truth man. I like stories, I read, I always did read. I read short stories, long stories, anecdotes, jokes. I think communication is very important, and I’ve heard great storytellers.

NOJ : Another name out there Johnny Mandel? 
GG: Yeah well, great music. That’s a whole ‘nuther thing…movie themes, orchestrations very tasty and yet he had an edge to him that’s not Ferrante and Teicher.

NOJ : So what about Eddie Jefferson (picture below)  that appeals to you so much?

GG: When I first heard Eddie Jefferson sing with a quintet, it just sounded like everyone was having so much fun. The musicians were having fun, you could hear the fun in Eddie, it was a good time. It was a story, there was humor there was history. There were inflections of the horn. He talked about the musicians, so obviously he knew them, he was on the inside. Then the more I found out about Eddie, he comes out of vaudeville. He’s a dancer so he was really in that whole scene… to me that whole era was just very interesting.

NOJ : What about a guy like Babs Gonzales?

GG: I never met Babs Gonzales nor did I ever meet Eddie Jefferson, but Babs Gonzales from what I know from some of the people that met Babs. He was a character, a hustler, a hipster, a piano player, somebody who was always on the move. Funny, he was supposed to be so very funny. Plus he had a real jazz voice to me, a real jazz sound. He was a hustler, and when I found out that Monk chose him to write some lyrics, well that’s good enough for me.

NOJ : Let’s go on the other end of the spectrum. What about Oscar Brown Jr?

GG: Wow! There is a guy who had a great sound….he had stories. He was kind of like an actor, who would slip into personas. He would, you know, acquire an accent. You know, he sang like a snake.  He sang like an old African American cat from the south. He sang very sophisticated. He was all those things.

NOJ : What about a guys like Leon Thomas with his yodeling technique. I hear some of that technique in some of your music off your new Miles Davis record MilesTones?

GG:  Unique. Yeah well I guess he did it first, maybe Moody and the Eddie did it a little bit. Its kind of like a yodel but its almost like a saxophone when you pop one of the valves and the note goes in and out and in and out. It’s an effect… and I don’t try to do tricks. If it adds to the music its an effect, its not just a trick,. I don’t go for it if it’s just a trick.

NOJ : Besides singers you seem to have an affinity for musicians like Horace Silver, a pure piano player, Dizzy a horn player, Dexter a horn player and then you go off the edge and onto Gil Scott-Heron.

GG: But all storytellers. You’re right….but all storytellers. Dizzy was a scat singer, and talk about a sense of humor. Dexter, I never heard Dexter sing, but I think I heard him sing through the tenor. I’ve seen video of him walking onto the stage with his saxophone around his neck, and walking to the microphone and saying to the audience “What’s new. How’s the world treating you?  You haven’t changed a bit, lovely as ever, I must admit” Phrasing, that laid back style.  So many instrumentalists that I dug certainly effected my singing.

NOJ : If you go back to look at some of the people that have inspired you or even look at some of the people whose music you continue to play, its like a menagerie of outliers in the music.

GG:   I love it. (Laughter)

NOJ : Do you feel you are a bit of an outlier in the music?

GG: I don’t know, maybe. I’d like to be as main stream as possible without being,.. playing to the lowest common denominator. I think everybody that I find interesting; if they were exposed to main stream most people would probably dig it. I grew up with television and my parents used to watch Perry Como, I thought he was terrific. Do I sing like Perry Como? I don’t know maybe thee is a touch of him in me, but I don’t try to copy anybody. I remember Kate Smith, I know I don’t sing like Kate Smith.

NOJ: You don’t look like her either.

GG:   I know, but hopefully I have been influenced by Kate Smith, Perry  Como, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Sinatra, Jack Teagarden, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Scott, Chet Baker not to leave out the ladies. Anita O’Day, Carmen McCrae, Betty Carter, of course Sarah and Ella. There’s a bunch of people that I have listened to. I am a fan of the music instrumentally and vocally. For me it was like you said, the great American songbook and this music we call jazz. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, I mean that’s Count Basie by voice.

Jon Hendricks ( pictured above) , what a storyteller. I mean I just played Freddie Freeloader for a bunch of students and Jon (Hendricks) wrote lyrics to everybody’s solos. Cannonball, Coltrane, Wynton Kelly, Miles and then he got four great singers singing these solos and of course, he sings the un-singable solo of John Coltrane.  And all the lyrics are written, they make great sense, they’re philosophical and they fit. That’s the kind of stuff that influenced me.

I’m influenced by Johnny Mercer, you know he told stories and Hoagy Carmichael told stories, but you know Jon and Eddie and Babs they were on the hip end of things. I dug Lenny Bruce, but he didn’t sing and I dug Lord Buckley and Jonathan Winters.

NOJ : Do you consider the hip era the pantheon of cool?

GG: Yeah that was before me too. That wasn’t my generation. I was on the planet in the fifties but I wasn’t hangin’ on the corner.

NOJ : What is it about that era, that hip era, that beatnik cool era that was so enticing to you that obviously affected you in a great many ways?

“The hipsters, the way they dressed…they were clean as the Board of Health.”
GG: Well, you said one of the key words. It was cool, and I’m not talking about the temperatures. That Lester Young Speak. The hipsters, the way they dressed, and I‘m not talking about the guys with the black turtlenecks and the black berets. The double breasted suits, nice silk ties, high shirt collars, nice shoes, wing tips etc.; they were clean as the board of health. And the language that they used was a real inside (language), the squares didn’t understand it.  So it was like,  “Listen we’re over here and were having a conversation and you can understand us but you probably can’t pick up on all this and that’s the way it was meant to be.”  So it wasn’t  to exclude them, you could join, if you could pick up on it. And then like I said,  I grew up in  the era between the hipsters and the hippies. Where the hippies were, they were like out and the hipsters, they were in, very in. They had a language of their own. It was kind of a social revolution. Kind of like the hippies and I was part of them too, that was my era, but they were revolting in a different way.

NOJ : The music of for arguments sake Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Cream, did that all pass you by or did it just not interest you?

GG: No, I used to hang out with a guy, a camera man who photographed for  Rolling Stone (magazine) . I can’t tell you all the concerts I saw. I saw Led Zeppelin live, I saw Cream live, I saw Jimi Hendrix live and the Doors… most of them, I went because of what was going on backstage. When the concert started I was in the lobby because it was too loud. Except for Jimi Hendrix, that was something. I played guitar badly, but when I saw Jimi Hendrix play I said to myself, this is something else….really something else.

NOJ : Do you think his music withstands the test of time?

GG: Uh, I haven’t listened to Jimi Hendrix in a long time, but I know he is still popular and  guitarists are still trying to figure what he played. Who knows were he would have gone, because he used to play rhythm and blues till somebody took him aside and said,    “We’re taking you to England, let your hair grow, dress in psychedelic. Were going to put you with two British rocker cats and we’re going to make a lot of money.”  So he started to play something else, but he still had that rhythm and blues sound and that is what made him Jimi Hendrix.
"Miles was funny, ... if Miles knew you and liked you, you’re solid... I think he said things to provoke people."

NOJ : Let’s go to another iconic image Miles Davis (pictured above) . You have a brand new album out , which I have had the pleasure of listening to about the music of Miles Davis. Some of the music he actually wrote and some of which he made famous by playing it the way he did.  Were you a fan of his music all along. You know Miles was the kind of guy that was always changing. Did you sort of drop out at some point with Miles? 

GG: I saw Miles in the mid-sixties at Fairfield University. And Miles, it was just before the change. He had young cats with him and I was probably, I don’t know maybe seventeen years old. I don’t know who was in the band. But he still wore a black suit with a white shirt and no tie and short hair, he was just turning, some straight ahead, some modal music and some different kind of blowing. I thought it was wild and I liked Miles’ music because when  got  into Miles I was listening to his 1959 music, even though it was 1969, I’m listening to 1959 Miles. As far as being a fan of his music, I like that he was provocative. He would say things.

Miles was funny, he had a great sense of humor and if Miles knew you and liked you, you’re solid. But on some of the interviews that Miles gave, I think he said things to provoke people. One of the things that I heard Miles say was, when he began to play fusion, was something like “I can play better fusion over the top of what they’re playing (the band) than anybody who plays fusion.”  So he wasn’t afraid to say it like it is. All those guys who were really at the top of their game, they weren’t bagging, they were saying I do this and I do it well. Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker they were gentlemen, but they knew how good they were. The change that Miles made….. I remember reading something where a journalist approached Miles and said “You know Miles, I used to dig what you played, but I don’t get what you’re doing now.” Miles leaned over and said to him “You want me to wait for you?” That was great, man. (Laughter).

NOJ : As far as stage personalities go , you are probably the antithesis of Miles on stage. You engage your audience; you bring them into the fold. They are participants in the musical adventure that you give them. Miles used to turn his back to his audience. What do you think about that?

GG: I think that all the things Miles used to do onstage, made people come to see him….’cause Miles was smart. I saw a concert on video….. someone would be playing a solo and Miles would hold up a poster and the name of the player would be on the poster. That’s to be provocative, that’s showmanship. Miles was really a showman, you know he didn’t wear those clothes so people wouldn’t look at him. So he did it a different way.

NOJ : So tell me about this new album. It’s called Miles Tones and one of the songs on it is Milestones and actually you wrote the lyrics to it.

GG: Yes, yes. The only one I wrote the lyrics to.

NOJ : So it’s a Miles Davis with lyrics album?

GG: Right, not all of them, some of them.  Miles recorded from the fifties like “All Blues,” “Boplicity,” “Four,” “Walkin’,” “So What,” lyricized by great singers Oscar Brown Jr., Jon Hendricks,  Eddie Jefferson, Al Jarreau’s lyrics to “Tutu.” Babs and Hanneghin lyrics for “‘Round Midnight.” Miles didn’t write that, but Miles, from what I understand, played that at the Newport Jazz Festival in nineteen fifty something and that made Columbia records take notice (and say) we should record this guy. Miles and Lester Young used to go over to listen to Frank Sinatra to learn phrasing and Sinatra would listen to Miles and Lester for phrasing. I think that’s very interesting. So “I Fall in Love Too Easily” or “You’re my Everything” were two other ballads I chose.

NOJ : Jazz is an incestual music.

GG: Yeah, yeah. And, you know, it’s the same notes, it’s the same lyrics, but everybody can, if you can get inside of it and then show what it does to you when your standing in front of a bunch of people, that‘s what makes it interesting. There are some people who can act it but if it’s for real it’s a whole lot better.

NOJ : Do you have a favorite on this album, that you feel that  where the band clicked?

GG: The one we took off, no, (Laughter)
 I don’t know. I like singing lots of solos so I dug “Four”, I dug singing “Four” where I sang Jon’s  lyrics to Miles’ solo and to Horace’s ( Silver’s) solo. I sing Eddie’s lyrics to “So What” , you know it’s a lot of vocal gymnastics. On the other hand I like to sing a ballad I don’t do anything to, I don’t try any tricks. I just try to let it affect me or I try to remember something might have happened or use my imagination, you know I just try to tell the truth.

NOJ : Your music is getting progressively more modern, chronologically more modern that is. What is your next project?

GG: Oh yeah, I don’t know. Gil Scott Heron was a ball. That was really a ball. But I hear a lot of different things that I like. I can’t help but be a bebopper. I am drawn to it… post bop, hard bop. I like swing music. Gil’s music was spoken word, or rhythm and blues / funk, to me. But Gil comes out of jazz and blues. I don’t know. A lot of the music that is being played today has got a jazz/rock fusion thing.

NOJ : Do you see yourself picking up the mantle for any of the more current music like a Paul Simon or a Stevie Wonder. 

GG: I don’t know. What attracts me is a story a melody and harmonies. There have been a few tunes that have melody and harmony but didn’t have lyrics, so I wrote lyrics. Fortunately for me the people that publish the tunes said solid, we dig it, we’ll give you permission. I wrote some lyrics that I can’t record because they just didn’t get that far, because some folks like to say no and some folks are glad to say yes. We were talking earlier before the camera started to roll about some early Blood, Sweat and Tears. That was jazz, that came fresh out of jazz. It didn’t take a left turn. I don’t know, I don’t close any doors.

I always liked Gil Scott-Heron. Did I ever think I would record an album of Gil Scott-Heron… no. I was approached and I said I would love to do it. There is a few Rolling Stones songs that I like. Rolling Stones got a lot of grit, but they come out of the blues. They wanted to be a blues band, instead they became the Rolling Stones, which was probably not so bad for them. I don’t know (what’s next).

NOJ : You do a lot of teaching. What do you find in the modern student is their interests and do you see some up and coming stars that you feel are bound in the tradition? 

GG: I work with college kids.  I’m surprised at the amount of kids that come in and say “Oh yeah, I know who Chet Baker is.”  I expect them to know Miles, I also expect them to know who Duke Ellington but they don’t, but sometimes they know who these people are, and some more than others and some don’t know anything.    I’m happy to be teaching at Wesleyan and Southern CT State University and Sacred Heart.  Most of these kids have no idea of what this music is all about, but I don’t teach Do, Re, Mi. The catalog lists it as “Jazz Vocals.”   They have to call it something. I would like to call it conversational voice, so I can try to get them to sing they way they sound when they talk.

But I always play someone in the first fifteen minutes of a private lesson.  I bring a bunch of cds and I might play some of the folks we talked about. I might play singer or I might play a horn player, but whatever I play, ninety-nine percent of the time they say “Wow!”  They all know who Frank Sinatra is, but they never heard Frank Sinatra with Count Basie. Sinatra in their head is New York, New York. When I play Sinatra singing  “Pennies from Heaven” with Count Basie live at the Sands in nineteen sixty, they flip. because the music is so good. You know. Some of them can’t read music but they can read the words.  When I give them a lead sheet, something like “I Should Care” and I put Dexter Gordon on, they follow along and after about eight bars they look up and say “I can hear the words in his horn.” Hello! So I’m happy to turn on the light for them. Some of them are pretty talented, some of them are music majors, some of them are not, it doesn’t matter. If they want to take this music and try to be the next Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, solid, but I just want them to be aware of this music.

NOJ : A lot of people in the periodicals have been crying about jazz is dying, it has an  older crowd, it doesn’t have the life it once had, its regurgitating the old music.
What is your take on the life and jazz as an art form that is going to go on?

GG: I’m smiling, because he I can’t help think of Thelonious Monk. When somebody asked him “Monk where’s jazz going?”  and Monk said “ For all I know its going to Hell.” You know, I think that is a great quote. Again, those guys were provocative. I think that  a little bit of both is happening. I think that yes, the original audience for this music is growing older. Yes there is a new audience for this music.  Some of the younger musicians, because they grew up in a rock and roll frame of mind, when they play this music they can’t help but fuse what they grew up with. So its’ going to attract another group, a younger audience, I think. Jazz is supposed to evolve, that’s what they say.

I have a certain parameter of what I like. I can’t help it, I’ll be honest. Jazz is evolving, I’m not looking to make a left turn. I like evolution. I don’t know if there is another innovator but from what I understand, the last vocal innovator was probably Betty Carter and the last instrumental innovator was probably John Coltrane. I don’t think either one of them set out to be innovators. Maybe something will happen, maybe something won’t.   I would like to see this music continue, after all there’s only twelve notes.

NOJ : Thanks so much for your insight and your time.

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