There's an old joke among jazz musicians which goes something like this: What's the definition of a jazz singer? Someone who doesn't know the melody.
I think I would have chuckled if the person telling the joke hadn't been vocalese extraordinaire, Giacomo Gates. For those of you not familiar with the term vocalese, you might have to mosey yourself on over to the Fine Arts Center for KCME's finale to its Fall Jazz Concerts on Wednesday evening to let Gates, backed by the Eric Gunnison Trio, hip you to some ear training.
Joining the likes of Eddie Jefferson, Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy, some of the true pioneers of vocalese, Gates brings a fresh voice to the art of attaching lyrics to famous horn solos. Instead of singing over the melody line like most traditional vocalists, vocalese artists ride the line with their voices. "I think it opens the door to a whole lot of people who don't understand music," Gates said in a recent interview. "With vocalese, the audience can hear words, and anybody can understand words."
Vocalese artists have fashioned lyrics to the music of such greats as Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, George and Ira Gershwin, and Miles Davis. Usually springboarding off the title of the tune, vocalese singers intertwine words and syllables to the notes of the solos and the melodies.
Gates creates from whatever moves him. "I have to be intrigued by the title," he said. "Like with the lyrics I wrote to "Five Spot Blues," I just did some research on the club where Monk hung out and went from there. But I really liked the solo in that tune; it swings for me."
With two albums under his belt, Blue Skies (DMP) and Fly Rite (Sharp Nine Records), Gates is making a name for himself in the jazz-vocalist arena, but it has taken him a while to come into his calling. Born in 1950 in Bridgeport, Conn., Gates grew up around a musical father, a violinist who exposed him to classical, big-band and gypsy music. "My father always had Count Basie, Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway playing," recalled Gates.
At 6 years old, Gates had his first gig at, of all places, his tap-dancing recital. Refusing to perform because he was too embarrassed to dance in front of all the girls in the class, his instructor gave him an ultimatum. "She said I had to sing if I wasn't going to dance," said Gates. "So, I sang 'Pretty Baby,' and it was no problem."
When he was 8 years old, Gates began guitar lessons, and by age 12, he was learning American standards. "I certainly listened to pop music when I was a teenager," said Gates. "But it didn't intrigue me like jazz did; jazz surprised me constantly. I'll never forget hearing Dave Brubeck's Time Out for the first time and all the time signatures weren't 4/4. And then Thelonius Monk really tweeked me, too."
Although he liked the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, jazz is what spoke to Gates, and he wanted to speak back. The guitar proved too limiting; he couldn't express what he heard in his head on the fret board. Unable to decide what to do with his life musically, he tried his hand at college, studying civil engineering. Again, a bit too limiting. He worked construction for a while and then got word of the Alaska Pipeline. "I was in my mid-20s, and I thought it would be an adventure," said Gates. "I moved up there with the intention of staying a year, but that turned into 12."
A meeting with Sarah Vaughan, a good collection of jazz and an annual summer arts festival made those 12 years in Alaska worthwhile and provided all the education Gates needed to pursue a life in music full-time. "Fairbanks didn't have great radio stations like the East Coast," said Gates. "So, I started collecting jazz." He was influenced by all the greats: Cole, Sinatra, Armstrong, Vaughan, but it was Eddie Jefferson who really grabbed hold of him. "When I heard Jefferson, it was the first time a vocalist sounded like he was in the band, not out in front of it," said Gates. "He was swinging with the band, and his stories were humorous and just plain entertaining. I liked how different and spontaneous he sounded."
He sat in whenever he could in the be-bop-barren tundra of Fairbanks, Alaska, and finally, at the annual summer arts festival, Gates got some recognition. That year, Steve Allen and Sarah Vaughan were headliners and Gates took a vocal workshop from Cab Calloway's daughter, Chris Calloway. While singing and scatting at one of the local clubs, Vaughan came in and told Gates he was doing something very different, but he was never going to get heard if he stayed in Fairbanks. It took awhile, but in l990, Gates moved back to his native Connecticut.
"I finally felt the urge to be near the scene," said Gates. "Connecticut is so close to everything -- New York, D.C. -- that I felt there would be plenty of opportunities to sit in with some good cats." Gates described what it was like to try to sit in with jazz musicians as an unknown vocalist. "At least if you walk in with a tenor saxophone, the guys in the band can immediately assume you had to make an investment to buy it, and if you have the audacity to walk up onstage with it, then you had to have taken some lessons," said Gates. "But with a singer, you never know. I mean, anybody can sing in the shower."
Soon the local musicians saw Gates was serious and gave him a place onstage. "I'd call the tune, and they'd call the tempo," said Gates.
While gigging on the East Coast and working on his writing, he kept in touch with jazz historian Guy Grover, who he met at the festival in Fairbanks. Gates occasionally sent Grover recordings he was working on and letters about who he was gigging with, and Grover decided Gates needed to cut an album. Grover had some connections in the jazz world and introduced Gates to Helen Keane, the late great Bill Evans' manager.
"She told him the last thing she wanted to do was manage a damn singer," he said. "She agreed to meet with me anyway, and when I saw all the famous cats on her office wall, I got a little nervous. She asked me to sing for her on the spot without any music and after I stopped, she said, 'I'm going to put together a rhythm section and record you.' " Gates' album Blue Skies would be her last project before she died of cancer.
Both Blue Skies and Fly Rite are superbly done with top-notch musicians backing him, reaffirming Gates' incredible talent. Gates shows off his writing talent and deep respect for jazz history on Blue Skies with "Five Cooper Square," creating lyrics for Monk's "Five Spot Blues." His enunciation and swinging scat on Jefferson's interpretation of Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite" are crazily interpreted. Fly Rite shows Gates' expanding repertoire and his ability to handle all the great lyrics by Jefferson, Jon Hendricks and Oscar Brown Jr., swinging and magically scatting to Gillespie, Monk and Gershwin.
It's strange to think of this guy up in Alaska shoveling rock and driving bulldozers, but I guess we all come to our callings in strange ways. Now a world traveler with gigs all over America and Canada, and a recent gig in Italy where fans hounded him about not bringing his first album to sell, Gates is quite the accomplished vocalese performer. "As a performer, I think I'm a happy medium between Wayne Newton and Miles Davis," he said. "I don't do schtick. I don't do schmaltz. But I definitely perform for the audience."