Giacomo Gates: An Unconventional Backstory
The vocalese medium has been expanding since Eddie Jefferson first began barking out bebop solos in the early 1960s. Jefferson's hard swing phrasing opened up a score of possibilities for the archetypical jazz singer. Since then, the vocalese genre has been nurtured into a creatively unique branch on jazz's straight-ahead tree. Gates continues to carry this vocal tradition into today's modern realm with continence.
All About Jazz: When did you start singing, and what were the events that started your career in motion?
Giacomo Gates: The first time I sang in public, I was six years old. I was taking tap dancing lessons and when recital time came, I didn't want to dance. The dance teacher told me, "If you don't dance, you'll have to sing instead." "Solid," I thought to myself. So I at performance time, I sang the song "Pretty Baby," while eight boys and girls tapped behind me.
I also began guitar lessons at age eight, and continued lessons until the age of seventeen. I worked for a short time playing weddings, which at that time, was all about playing the Great American Songbook. I was turned on to very good music at a young age.
AAJ: Your back story isn't an altogether conventional one. What was life like before the music?
GG: Music for me was fun and challenging. I wasn't trying to make a living at it in the beginning, nor was I encouraged or discouraged by anyone. When I got out of high school, I tried college for a year. I went to school for Mechanical Engineering, but not having a very strong background in math, and having to work to support myself during college, it wasn't the best choice for me. I was more interested in the hands-on part of building things.
I left school and began working as a laborer on a road crew. Soon, I was driving dumps and tri-axles, and later tractor trailers. It wasn't long before I learned how to run heavy equipment like loaders, dozers, scrapers and graders. After several years of working in Connecticut, I heard about the Alaskan Pipeline and moved to Alaska, with the intention of working a year. That year turned into fourteen years. I worked in Washington State and Arizona for a couple of years in between as well.
While living in Fairbanks, I got involved with a summer arts festival and took a vocal workshop. There I was encouraged by several instructors and a guest artist to pursue my own singing. I also was beginning to feel like it was time for a change, so I returned to Connecticut, because I knew the surrounding cities had a music scene. Areas like New York City, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Boston, and New Haven, Hartford.
AAJ: Your earliest influences, within the jazz realm. What was your first exposure to the genre like?
GG: The first jazz LP I bought was [Dave Brubeck's Time Out (Columbia, 1959). I was around ten years old. I was intrigued by the different time signatures.
The second LP I owned was a Monk record. He played in four. I found his melodies and percussive accents very interesting, and humorous. After that, Dexter Gordon, Lester Young Lou Donaldson Dizzy Gillespie,Miles Davis Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and on and on.
AAJ: Your unique vocal style, often times, is very instrument-like in quality. How did you come to develop this sense of harmonic presence? Was it something you developed on your own, or were there guiding influences along the way?
GG: I had the best teachers, and a record collection that I wore out. Also growing up in Connecticut, I was able to hear the New York City radio stations that played straight-ahead jazz. The stations had radio personalities that talked, and taught the music they played. I listened to instruments, and played my guitar along with the music. The singers that I dug were the most instrumental-like. I heard Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra,Sammy Davis Jr. and cats like that. Of course I dug them, but as I got older, I heard Eddie Jefferson, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Mose Allison, Joe Williams, Al Hibbler, Babs Gonzales, Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Mark Murphy, Anita O'Day, Carmen McRae, Martha Raye, Louis Prima and Keely Smith. The list goes on and on, and even includes James Brown, Al Jarreau, The Four Tops, Wicked Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin.
My sound, or approach, is a combination of all of these singers, as well as many other singers, and instrumentalists that have inhabited my ears for many years. Also, the experience of living life. Of having tasted many different lifestyles. Being in different places, and different situations. Ups and downs. Spending time with myself, trying to digest what goes on in one's head, and how to express a lyric or melody, whether written or learned. Trying to let the song do something to me, rather than me do something to it. No affectations, nothing contrived, no tricks. If it's a good time, it's for real. Likewise, if it's sad and a heart breaker, it's for real.