Given the strength of his husky voice, it seems appropriate that Gates spent more than a dozen years working on the Alaska Pipeline. It was a local arts festival and a chance encounter with Sarah Vaughn that encouraged him to pursue a music career in the late 1980's.
"In this kind of music, it's about intention, honesty and what comes through in your voice. The experience of life," he says. "Chet Baker didn't have a great range, but wow, when he sang, he would just floor you. Many of my favorite singers are Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster and Lester Young. They were singing through the horn. If that isn't singing, I don't know what is. It was about transferring the feeling of what the music did for them."
Personality is key to "Centerpiece." Gates, who teaches voice at Wesleyan University and the Hartford Conservatory of Music, takes a bebopper's approach to singing and doesn't hesitate to play with the tempo of something as well known as "Route 66" of "Summertime." He took a live approach to the studio recording and sometimes offers a short anecdote at the beginning of a song. He can improvise with his deep voice as well as many can with a horn.
He credits his love of standards to playing with wedding bands as a teenager. While his peers were listening to rhythm and blues and the Beatles, he was discovering the Great American Songbook. He remembers listening to Thelonious Monk and Dexter Gordon as a 14 year old. Gates says, jazz can't be faked. "I would never ask someone to sing something they can't connect with because you're not being honest with what you're doing. An audience knows if you're jiving them or not; they're not stupid. They may not know chord changes, per se, but they know the real deal."
Gates became a professional during an era when it seemed like the industry was only interested in female singers. The recent success of artists like Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Jane Monheit was perhaps the culmination of this trend. "Centerpiece," which also includes such well-knowns as "How High The Moon" and an awesome "All Of Me," is the singer's third disc.
"I'm not pretty enough to be discovered overnight," he laughs. "They're looking for male jazz singers, all of a sudden there's a lot of young singers on the sceneÖ.and it's easier for females to emote or to show their feelings and that's what singing is all about. You have to get emotionally naked in front of an audience and tell them what is really going on with you."