Personality: James B. ‘Saxsmo’ Gates Jr. | Richmond Free Press

“Together we can make it happen!”

For James B. “Saxsmo” Gates Jr., this phrase, which originated in one of his songs, epitomizes the universality and practicality he believes are essential to jazz music. and gender communities. An accomplished musician and director of jazz studies at Virginia State University, he brings his skills and philosophy to the service of co-chairing the RVA East End Festival.

Mr Gates was approached to play the role last May by Marilyn Heckstall, president of the East End Festival. His musical background and personal connection to the East End stemming from his childhood at Fairfield Court convinced the Reverend Heckstall that Mr Gates would have a ‘monumental impact’ on the event’s success.

At the same time, Mr. Gates was eager to help Richmond-area children grow and learn to appreciate music, and believed co-chairing the festival was a way to achieve his goal.

“We need to bring back some cohesion in the community in order to move forward and continue to grow in the arts and instrumental music for our students and their community,” Gates said.

Since 2016, the festival has been a vehicle for arts appreciation and has raised over $400,000 to support arts programs in the East End of Richmond Public Schools.

As co-chair, Mr. Gates helps generate ideas for the event and provides input to board members who have limited arts experience. He is also a role model for everyone involved in the festivities, especially young people.

“If I can be a blessing to someone and inspire them through music to be the best person they can be by studying hard, getting good grades and applying what they learn,” Gates said, “I will have reached a goal, it makes me feel good to have accomplished it.

Mr. Gates’ own life testifies to his love of music. A performer since sixth grade, he earned the nickname “Saxsmo,” a spin on Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, in 1970. His commitment to his craft continued when he enrolled in first VSU year, while working with music legends such as Marvin Gaye. , The Temptations, Dizzy Gillespie, and today where he performs regularly on local, national and global stages. Working to ensure this year’s festival is the best ever, Mr Gates, who always draws crowds with his saxophone skills, will perform during the festival. His desire to bring attention to the arts won’t stop with this year’s festival. In the future, he hopes to appear before the Virginia General Assembly to advocate for increased state investment in the arts. While that may be a tall order given competition from other organizations that are also seeking state funding, but Gates’ belief in the power of music and the arts is resolute.

“It’s the driving force that brings people together,” Gates said when asked about the importance of the arts to the Richmond community. “It helps to connect with one’s culture and unite different cultures.”

Meet a musical master, arts advocate and this week’s personality, James “Saxsmo” Gates Jr.:

Volunteer position: Co-president of the RVA East End Festival.

Occupation: Director of the Dr. Billy Taylor Jazz Studies Program, Virginia State University.

Date and place of birth: September 21 in Richmond.

Where I live now: North Chesterfield County.

Education: Undergraduate degree in professional music, Berklee College of Music; MA in Jazz Studies, North Carolina Central University.

Family: Father, James B. Gates Sr., mother Della M. Gates, three brothers, Walter James Martin Jr., Edward Gates Sr., Toney M. Gates Sr.

RVA East End Festival is: An RVA Community Music Festival to help raise funds to purchase musical instruments for Richmond Public Schools.

When and why started: The RVA East End Festival was conceived in the East End community in 2015 by community leaders who believed there were “God’s blessings in the community”. The first festival in May 2016 served “to inspire our students to prioritize excellence in education, music and the arts as the foundation of their future”.

The last time the RVA East End Festival took place: June 2019.

Why it is important that the festival returns: It is important that the festival continues as it has been postponed the last two years from 2020 to 2022 due to COVID-19.

Why I accepted the position of co-chair: I accepted the position of co-chair because I am passionate about helping our children grow, learn and become successful adults. It’s especially close, dear to my heart, and personal to me since it’s the neighborhood where I was born, grew up, and got my start in music. To be able to provide some of the opportunities that I had and experienced as a child is a powerful… having amazing parents, supporting my family, neighborhood mentors, spectacular jazz giants who happened to be many of my elementary school teachers , middle school and high school.

Name of co-chair: Rev. Marilyn Heckstall.

When and how I got involved in the RVA East End Festival: I got involved when Reverend Marilyn Heckstall reached out to me shortly after Virginia State University started in May 2022. We had a conversation about my co-chairing the East End Festival. She said I would have a monumental impact on the board and the community because:

• My parents’ musical experience;

• Caring and loving teachers, such as John Peyton, Joe Kennedy, Tuscan Jasper, Dave Hoggard, James “Plunky” Branch, members of the Richmond Jazz Society, Gregory McCallum and others who have been the backbone of my development as a young artist.

• A special teacher, Mr. Ethan Pitts Sr., who helped me on my way to receiving a full scholarship to Virginia State University. He was my science teacher and my head baseball coach at John F. Kennedy High School.

• I have recorded five major recordings which are publicly available. Three of these recordings received Grammy nominations.

• I am the founder and director of the Dr. Billy Taylor Jazz Studies program at Virginia State University, where I worked for 11 years.

Goal number one as co-chair: My goal as co-chair is to be a positive role model for everyone, not just kids, but everyone! If I can be a blessing to someone and inspire them through music to be the best person (they can be), I will have achieved a goal that will make me feel good.

Why music and the arts are vital to our entire community: Music and the arts are vital to our entire community as it is the engine that brings people together. It is a universal language that has many emotional attributes (i.e. joy, love, happiness, peace, calm and tranquility, excitement, hope).

Richmond Public Schools and RVAEast End Festival: The RVA East End Festival will be celebrating its fifth annual event at Henry Marsh Elementary School, 818 N. 28th St. Henry Marsh Elementary is a beautiful new school featuring innovative technology, to provide a necessary environment for creative, stimulating learning and productive. The festival will take place on Saturday September 24, 2022 from 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.

How volunteers can get involved: Volunteers can get involved by signing up and others can donate on the RVA East End Festival website:

A perfect day for me is: A perfect day for me is to first thank God for all his blessings. There’s no way I could even imagine doing it from sunrise to sunset without God’s blessing. He’s the only reason I exist today! Now, as a bonus, a perfect day would be for me to lose (handy for those who don’t know what that means) for at least four or more hours a day, play tennis for as long as I can stand, and to be able to exercise period. I also have to include always being ready to give back and help someone in any capacity.

What I continue to learn about myself during the pandemic: Life is too short not to give 110% every day. Tomorrow is not given; hence there is a quote from the great late Paul Chambers (bassist) “To Play Like There’s No Tomorrow”. Those who know me know that every day, every opportunity God gives me to be able to play the saxophone, I take it at face value and play like there’s no tomorrow.

Something about me that people may not know: I slow down sometimes!

How music and the visual arts inspire me: The music is me! I am always moved by visualizing what I hear in my head. Another quote: “If you can visualize what you see fully and hold it in your hand, then it will become a reality.”

A quote that inspires me: “Perfection is not optional.”

My friends describe me as: A live wire.

At the top of my to-do list is: To complete my next recording.

Best late night snack: Pop corn.

Best thing my parents ever taught me: Be consistent, persevering and patient!

The person who influenced me the most: My parents influenced me the most, without a doubt!

Book that influenced me the most: “Celebrating BIRD: The Triumph of Charlie Parker” by Gary Giddins.

What I’m currently reading: “The Music of Black Americans” by Eileen Southern; “Jazz: From Its Origins to the Present” by Lewis Porter, Michael Ullman with Edward Hazell; “Miles: The Autobiography” by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe.

Next goal: Winning my first Grammy award.

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