By Sabina L. Lilly
Bassist John Tate has been a presence in the jazz world since he began enthusiastically gigging and attending jam sessions in Chicagoland during his undergraduate years at Northern Illinois University. In 2011, three years after earning his BA in jazz performance, he began studies at Juilliard, where he was a part of the über-select Juilliard Jazz Artist Diploma band and studied under the mentorship of bassist Ron Carter—ultimately graduating with an ArtDp in jazz studies.
John and his wife recently relocated from New York City to their Illinois roots, settling in Chicago. What a perfect time to catch up with this outstanding bassist!
CJM: Talk about your early exposure to music growing up in Galesburg, Illinois. Is your family musical?
John Tate: Yes, my father is a pianist, an organist, and recently a harpist. Both of my parents were schoolteachers so I spent a lot of time with my grandfather in my early childhood. He was an avid jazz fan, of big band and trad jazz in particular. He introduced me to Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and a plethora of other musicians. Often I wouldn’t be allowed to have an afternoon snack until I could tap my foot on two and four for an entire side.
CJM: How did you come to play acoustic bass?
JT: I started singing in church at age three and began playing piano by age five. In 6th grade I joined band and started playing the tuba and sousaphone, which got me interested in lower frequencies. In 8th grade I started playing electric bass in jazz band. By the end of my freshman year I had an upright in my hands.
CJM: Was there a specific recording, performance, or moment that first ignited your interest in jazz?
JT: There have been many people that have inspired my interest in this great art form. My grandfather created the initial spark but the drummer Matt Wilson brought his quartet to Galesburg in 2002 and gave a master class with our entire high school jazz band program. He had the entire band improvise together with his quartet all at one time. It was the first time most of the members of the band, including myself, had played “free.” It was a magical experience to express myself without constrictions.
CJM: How and when did you become serious about pursuing music as a career, and can you tell us about significant teachers or mentors?
JT: I knew that I would be pursuing a career in music by 7th grade. At the time I was committed to being a vocalist as I was already taking voice lessons with two instructors and starting to learn to speak German in order to better sing leid. However, the longer I played bass the less I wanted to be a singer. I had two significant bass teachers in Galesburg. The first, Earl Gately, was a distinguished bassist/pedagogue and was a professor at Knox College in town. He was one of the first to enforce strict standards and required the same from me as his students at the college. We spent most of our time working with the bow and improving my technique. The second, Andy Crawford, also a professor at Knox College and now one of the heads of the jazz program at Knox, was my first jazz bass teacher and was equally demanding as Earl. We spent a lot of time on jazz theory as well as having a solid beat and a fat sound.
CJM: Through the Juilliard jazz program, you had the opportunity to perform worldwide with a diverse range of musicians in various settings and configurations. Can you tell us a bit about the program—and recount a memorable performance or two?
JT: The Jazz Artist Diploma program at Juilliard was life changing in many ways for me. Within two years I had performed/taught in eight countries, had the opportunity to perform with many legendary jazz musicians, and workshopped with some of the very best of my peers. In particular, the time I spent with Ron Carter was essential to my growth both musically and personally. A performance that comes to mind was at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. It was a concert honoring Ron Carter for his 75th birthday and I performed in a bass choir that was arranged by Christian McBride. Alongside my student peers that were also studying with Ron, I got to perform with Christian, Buster Williams, Ben Wolfe, Ben Williams, and David “Happy” Williams. It was a very special evening and I was honored to be included.
CJM: Can you talk about one or two jazz artists, as well as a specific experience, that helped define your playing?
JT: Ron Carter was instrumental in my development as a bassist/musician. He is the most generous of people and is dedicated to everything that he does. He would fly back from playing a week in Tokyo, get off the plane, and teach his students right after he got home. He expected nothing less than perfection from me—which required me to raise my standards for myself. I remember being underprepared for a lesson after a vigorous week of touring and I started giving excuses. He looked at me and asked, “Mr. Tate, do you want to be a bassist or a hobbyist?” I of course said “bassist” and he nodded and responded, “Never come unprepared again.” Needless to say when the most-recorded jazz bassist in history is scolding you, you listen!
CJM: These days, many career acoustic bassists also play electric bass to some extent. Do you continue to play electric bass—and what is your philosophy on that?
JT: Yes, I play both and wouldn’t have it any other way. The instruments complement each other and I’m always surprised at how something I’ve learned on one transfers to the other.
CJM: What kind of teaching have you done, for example, educational outreach programs, master classes, individual or classroom instruction, etc.?
JT: While at Juilliard and NIU I gave many master classes, and I have been the bass instructor at a number of summer jazz camps both here and abroad. Prior to my departure to NYC in 2011 I had the pleasure of being the jazz bass instructor for school district 204 in Naperville as well as the jazz bass instructor and a combo director at Wheaton College.
I believe teaching is an essential skill that all musicians should perfect. It solidifies what you already know and helps to keep the hunger to learn alive. I’ve had so many phenomenal teachers that have been generous to me. It’s my duty to try and do the same.
CJM: Do you or have you done any composing or arranging?
JT: Yes! Writing music has been the best way for me to develop my own musical voice. Most of the time I am a sideman so I am always excited at an opportunity to perform my compositions. When I compose I like to use my emotions for inspiration and try to keep the analytical part of my brain from interfering with what the music wants to be. The majority of the time I write/arrange at the piano so that I can see the entire composition on the keyboard. Another technique I enjoy using, especially if I find myself stuck in a rut, is to record myself improvising freely on my bass for ten to fifteen minutes. Then I listen back for something I like and start a composition with that.
In February 2020 I will be presenting my own trio in Akron, Ohio, with Tony Malaby on tenor and soprano saxophones and Charles Rumback on drums. I am currently writing new music with these musicians in mind and I am eager to hear the final product.
CJM: What performances, recordings, and/or projects are on your horizon?
On Nov. 20 I will be performing with saxophonist Jarod Bufe’s band at Fitzgerald’s with Tim Stein on guitar and Jeremy Cunningham on drums.
On Nov. 24 the Charles Rumback Trio (pianist Jim Baker, drummer Charles Rumback, and myself) will be playing two sets at the Hungry Brain. The first set will be trio and the second set we’ll add saxophonist Greg Ward into the mix.
On Dec. 7 I’ll be at Winter’s Jazz Club with vocalist Typhanie Monique.
On Dec. 12 I’m back at Winter’s with vocalist Paul Marinaro.
On Dec. 21 I’ll be performing with saxophonist Anthony Bruno’s band at the California Clipper.
On Dec. 28 I’ll be at the Jazz Estate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with pianist Michael Stryker’s band.
Also, if you’re looking for a phenomenal meal with great music swing by Bandera Restaurant on November 9, 21, or 26. I will be joining pianist Tom Vaitsas and drummer Dave Williams.
The Charles Rumback Trio will release our new album in March 2020 on the Astral Spirits label. It’s the band’s third release (first studio album) and it will feature compositions from all three members.
I am also working towards my first recording as a leader—so stay tuned for future updates!
For the latest news, follow John on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Chicago Jazz Magazine content manager (and sometime-contributor) Sabina L. Lilly has been a professional musician for over three decades. Contact Sabina at firstname.lastname@example.org.