August 06, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

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American Fabric 

In the lead-up to the festival, local players are keeping jazz music’s legacy alive.

click to enlarge Richmond’s James “Saxsmo” Gates performs with his student and rising local star Dexter Moses. They perform at the Dark Room on Tuesday, Aug. 6.

Richmond’s James “Saxsmo” Gates performs with his student and rising local star Dexter Moses. They perform at the Dark Room on Tuesday, Aug. 6.

It's a solid week of Richmond jazz, even if the festival kicks things into overdrive. Things get off to a serious start on Tuesday at the Hof Dark Room, with a two-alto-sax hit from longtime champion James "Saxsmo" Gates and rising star Dexter Moses.

Wednesday features recent Virginia Commonwealth University grad Chet Frierson's birthday bash at the Vagabond Rabbit Hole. On Monday, after the multigenre whirl of the festival, Charles Owens celebrates two simultaneous new releases featuring his trio and local all-star R4nd4zzo Bigb4nd.

The Gates-Moses matchup has a deeply multigenerational Richmond resonance. Moses impressed local audiences in February when he was brought onstage with Branford Marsalis' Quartet at the University of Richmond. Gates, the director of jazz studies at Virginia State University and a cheerful stalwart of the local scene, has been Moses' teacher and mentor since they met seven years ago.

"It was like looking in a mirror," Gates says. "He was so energized. He had the same passion and enthusiasm I have. I took him on instantly."

"Our first lesson, [Gates] just sat in the middle of the living room and played like Bird [Charlie Parker], played like [John Col]Trane, played like Sonny Stitt." Moses says. "It was eye-opening, the first time I ever heard someone play like that. He really connected to the human part, showed me that this was about people. It's not just licks coming out of a book but knowing the [musical] language and being yourself. It helped me become a better person."

It was Moses' entree to a living legacy. Classical players vigorously reanimate the old ideas. The endpoint is less clear in the highly personal, totally improvisational world of late 1930s to early 1960s bebop, the focus of their gig. But the intent is the same. As William Faulkner wrote "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

"It's important for the audience to understand this music is real. And we don't hear it enough," Gates says. "We have to keep it alive because this is the fabric of America. It's deeper than just taking out your instrument and playing. It's a place where we can all come together."

Moses agrees. "People go to social media, to other activities that don't involve other people. We're isolated in our own brokenness. It takes a community to heal ourselves."

The community at the gig includes pianist Weldon Hill, bassist Michael Hawkins and drummer Kofi Shepsu. The intimate Dark Room, with its attentive audience, is an ideal place to see two generations of Richmond players bring music alive that predates them both. It's going to be a week deep in music. Might as well dive in early.

Alto Summit with Dexter Moses and James "Saxsmo" Gates, the Dark Room, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 9 p.m. Admission $5.

Chet Frierson Birthday Bash with Morgan Burrs, Michael Hawkins and Kofi Shepsu, Downstairs at the Vagabond, Aug. 7, 9 p.m. Free.

Charles Owens Trio with the R4nd4zzo Bigb4nd, the Dark Room, Tuesday, Aug.12, at 8 p.m. Admission $10.

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