Pianist  Leon  Bates

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


LEON BATES has performed in major concert halls in the United States and abroad—on five continents. Moreover, he is consistently re-engaged year after year. The Los Angeles Times called Bates “fiercely talented and powerful.” His performance with the Slovak Philharmonic elicited this praise from the critic: “Bates sets the standard…his performance was so skillful and honest, so elegant and warm that it became the standard by which I will forever measure the quality of this piece…”

Return engagements have included performances in Italy with the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai, Maurizio Billi, conducting; return engagements with the Chattanooga Symphony, Modesto Symphony, Napa Valley Symphony, Fort Wayne Philharmonic; and many others. Additionally, he has introduced a new recital program called “American Originals” featuring the great American composers of our time.

A versatile and exciting artist, Bates enjoys collaborating with string quartets, wind quintets, singers and dance companies. In 2007, he received a life time achievement award from the NANM (National Association of Negro Musicians) for his brilliant musicianship and untiring work with young people.

Since winning the Philadelphia Orchestra Senior Auditions as a student, Bates has emerged as one of America’s leading pianists. He is invited to the prestigious venues and his performances have warranted critical and audience accolades in the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, Philadelphia’s Academy of Music and Kimmel Center, and in San Francisco and the Bay area where he has been presented numerous times by Four Seasons Concerts.

Bates’ is a master teacher, and often is called upon to give master classes to promising young musicians. In one season alone he often performs over fifty residency programs in conjunction with orchestra engagements and recitals to inspire, motivate and delight America’s youth as he opens their hearts and minds to the love of music. Bates is also a favorite on college campuses because of his broad interests beyond the world of classical music.

A Renaissance man, Bates enjoys all the arts, including architecture, dance, theater and music. He is a sports enthusiast and a disciplined body builder, which he feels aids his concentration and maintains his strength for the rigors of a performance career. He has also begun composing, and finds great satisfaction in this creative aspect of music. One venture is composing for beginning students employing a new, progressive teaching method. He has written pieces in, collaboration with Janet Vogt, for a method book entitled Piano Discoveries (Heritage Music Press) [shown below]. Bates has recorded on the Orion label, Performance Records and Naxos, and on his own self-produced label.


His sheer mastery of the instrument has led to many performance invitations with major symphonies in the United States such as the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the American Symphony, the Detroit Symphony and the Atlanta Symphony. His large repertoire includes over 30 concerti by major composers, and several contemporary concerti. A project of Duke Ellington’s music is delighting audiences everywhere.

Bates has performed all over the world, appearing with the Vienna Symphony, The Sinfonica dell’di Santa Cecilia in Rome, the Strasbourg Symphony in France, Czech National Symphony, Prague, and the Quebec Symphony. He also toured South Africa after apartheid, and performed in Johannesburg with the National Symphony Orchestra and with the Natal Philharmonic. Bates also returned to Europe for performances in Germany and Italy.

A native of Philadelphia, Leon Bates began his formal study of music at the age of six on both piano and violin. While still young, he was recognized for his musical genius and groomed for a concert career. The late Irene Beck formulated his early training at the Settlement Music School, and his advanced study was under renowned pianist Natalie Hinderas at Temple University’s Esther Boyer College of Music. Among his awards are the Collegiate Artist Award from the Music Teachers National Association, the National Association of Negro Musicians Competition, the Symphony of the New World Competition, and the National Endowment for the Arts Solo Recitalists Fellowship Grant. His importance to the music world was recognized with an honorary Doctorate from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He also received the Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award from the Greater New York Wallenberg Committee for his extensive work with children.

Some highlights of his career include a performance with Lorin Maazel and the Orchestra of France; participating in the Steinway Foundation’s Gala Celebration commemorating the building of their 500,000th piano at Carnegie Hall; a performance at La Scala in Milan in a televised program, for which he received numerous ovations from a jubilant audience.

Bates has performed in Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops, Skitch Henderson conducting; and toured the U.S. in a program featuring the works of George Gershwin. The program, “Gershwin by Request,” has been performed at dozens of major venues from the Barbara Mann Music Center in Ft. Myers, Florida to the Detroit Music Hall. One Carnegie Hall highlight was a performance with Tamas Vasary in a tribute to his late teacher, Natalie Hinderas. Another was his debut recital in that hall.

Bates has continued to delight audiences while performing alone or with notable ensembles. He performed with the Bournemouth Symphony in England, Tamas Vasary conducting, and later as soloist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in Rome’s Olympic Stadium before an audience of 20,000 as a tribute to Christopher Columbus. Mr. Bates premiered a concerto by Adolphus Hailstork with the Virginia Symphony, later performing the Concerto with five more orchestras and culminating that experience with a performance in Carnegie Hall, JoAnn Falletta, conducting the Virginia Symphony. He has also performed several times with conductor Paul Freeman.

In October of 2001 Governor Tom Ridge presented the Pennsylvania Artist of the Year Award to Mr. Bates. Highlights of recent seasons are performances with the Detroit Symphony, U.S. Air Force Band, Napa Valley Symphony, Brooklyn Philharmonic, Czech National Symphony and extensive tours in the Mid-Atlantic states, and participation in a Gala concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 2003-04 he toured again in Italy and performed with many orchestras and in numerous recitals and in residencies. He also performed both in Switzerland and Germany.

A favorite at summer festivals, Leon Bates has performed in Chicago at Grant Park, at the Lake Tahoe Festival, at the Mann Music Center with the Philadelphia Orchestra, at the Cascade Festival with Murry Sidlin conducting, in Boston and on tour with the Boston Pops, Keith Lockhart conducting. Bates has been soloist at the Hollywood Bowl and returned on four occasions, most notably under the baton of John Maurceri. He has also worked with conductor James DePreist in Oregon, and with the New York Philharmonic.

He also has offered two lectures. The first is “Brown vs. the Board of Education,” based on the May 17, 1954 Supreme Court ruling, and the second is “American Originals,” recognizing the achievements of America’s extraordinary composers of our time.” Performance demonstrations accompany both lectures.

©2022 - Joanne Rile Artists Management [slightly edited] [text only - photo from another source]  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

It is a point of personal pride that I was invited by conductor Paul Freeman to participate in the Opening Night concert of the 1994 season of the Chicago Sinfonietta at Orchestra Hall.  Leon Bates was also on that program, and photos of us can be seen HERE.

Three years earlier, in June of 1991, I had met Bates before his concert at the Grant Park Festival, and we had a wonderful discussion.  Portions were aired on WNIB, Classical 97, and now the entire encounter has been transcribed on this webpage.
While setting up to record our conversation, he said some very nice things about The Windy City . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   I’m glad you like Chicago.  Do you like being a wandering musician?  

Leon Bates:   I enjoy it very much!  That quality comes to me honestly, as they say.  My father always had a case of wanderlust.  For quite a while he sang what they called
Jubilee, which is actually a kind of Gospel and Spirituals with a quartet.  He still follows it and listens to the music, but he was really caught up in it at that time before he got married.  I think I got a great deal of my talent from him.

BD:   Is he pleased that you have followed him into the musical profession?

Bates:   Very, very much so.  Both he and my mother are very supportive.

BD:   When you come to a new city, you obviously have to get used to the different instruments.  You can’t pack your piano like a violin.

Bates:   Absolutely!  [Both laugh]  Maybe it’s just as well...

BD:   How long does it take you to get used to each new instrument?

Bates:   No more than a couple of hours alone in the setting where I’m going to perform, so that I can get used to it.  If it’s a hall, I can get used to the acoustics, the feel of the piano, how things are generally going to react, and then I can sense what it’s going to be like having all the folks in there.  If it’s an outdoor event, then it
s just getting used to some of the noises that are a part of the whole setting, so that I’m not running into any surprises.

BD:   Do you like playing outdoors?

Bates:   I do!  First of all, what’s really nice about an outdoor event is the fact that it allows us to get close to people, and to bring people in with a very relaxed atmosphere.  I find that audiences generally are more prone to come to outdoor events like this than they are to go to the Symphony indoors in the season.  It’s a perfect way for us to reach a wider cross-section of the general audience, and to get them more interested in the kinds of things we do.

BD:   Especially with quiet and very intimate passages in the music, is there any way you can embrace twelve, or fifteen, or twenty thousand people?

Bates:   That is difficult, and trying to look at all of the different aspects of what some of these musical compositions have to offer might be futile.  But if we can get the public in, at least we can try to interest them in the magnitude of things that there are to be experienced in this kind of situation.  We can’t experience it all in one evening, or even in a season’s evenings.  If we go ten or twenty times in a season, we can’t do them all because there’s so much literature that’s available.  There is a never-ending number of different possibilities in performance, different kinds of ensembles, different kinds of soloists, and different kinds of repertoire that can run through an incredible number of years.

BD:   Then how do you decide which of this massive number of pieces you’ll play in any given season?

Bates:   I have to look in terms of my own musical growth, and different points of reference that I would like to reach.  Certainly, it’s important for me as a pianist, to hit certain traditional staples, and touch base with those.  I need to know what they’re about to appreciate the magnitude of what the composers have contributed.  For concertos, it’s important for audiences and for orchestras to know what this new person can do with those established war horses.  They may not have heard this soloist before, and it’s a benchmark for them in terms of being able to recognize this new talent, and what this person has to offer.  It’s also good for us to know how we can handle those kinds of things, and how it’s possible to bring something new to music that’s been played by all of the greats who have come down the road.

BD:   Do you feel that you’re competing against your colleagues, and the shades of those gone before you?

Bates:   Inevitably.  You’re always up against it, but there’s a maturation process that takes place in the face of it, because you have to get past that.  To be constantly intimidated by it can be an obstacle, or a barrier over which you may not get if you allow yourself to be intimidated.  Being able to get past that, and to approach that music not with fear but with respect, is an extremely important thing.  Once you have done that, it helps you in terms of striking out on new ground, and looking at pieces that have not been recorded, including ones which were composed last week.  You learn how to deal with the idea of giving a first performance while the composer is sitting there in the audience.  That is an intimidating factor.  When we refer to the history and recordings of other performers, especially of great masters, it’s a different situation when the composer is deceased.  We’re looking at a long-established legacy in terms of what this music has come to represent.  When we look at something that’s brand new, and realize that we have helped to forge what that whole sense of legacy is going to be, it puts us at a different stage of the ball game.  That’s a very special experience.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Let’s talk about one of these new pieces that you have done.  You made a record of a work by George Walker?

Bates:   Yes, his Third Piano Sonata, which was written for me in 1975.  [Photo of LP jacket shown at left]

BD:   Did he consult with you during the composing process?

Bates:   He didn’t, actually.  It is not a very long work.  He wrote the piece, and then it was submitted to me.  It’s quite a little while ago when I did that particular recording and premiere, and I was more intimidated at that point in my life than I would be at this point when I’m just about to embark on another premiere.  But it was an interesting situation because you’re really with these symbols on the page, which have come to represent certain things in terms of long-past literature.  Maybe they have different reference points, different ramifications in terms of today’s sound, and we’re looking and listening to all of this in our heads, and trying to get it to project in terms of how it’s going to sound in the performance situation.  There’s something else to deal with, which is the self-doubt which constantly creeps in.  Does this really come over convincingly, or am I simply blowing my own trumpet here?  Is this really effective?  The problem with so much contemporary music is that the nomenclature is so alien to the average person who would listen that you don’t even have them to bounce it off of.

BD:   You have to convince them not only of yourself, but also of the composer?

Bates:   Yes, the validity of the composer and the piece.

BD:   You don’t have to convince people of Beethoven?

Bates:   No, because they don’t even question it.

BD:   Should they?

Bates:   I think they should, but not to arrive at a point of contention as far as to whether it’s a work of art.  They arrive at it for themselves.  It’s like when our parents told us things as children, and they said not to do this just because of this, that and the other.  Later on in our lives we find out for ourselves that this is the case, that it is true.  It has more validity once we find it out than it did when we were children.  It’s the same with many of the great classics of music.  In many instances, as students of music we accepted them because our teachers told us that this is great stuff.  But then we found it out for ourselves, and the whole lesson was really appreciated at a later point.

BD:   Are you trying to let people understand it for themselves in every performance you give?

Bates:   Ideally, yes.  Ideally, that is exactly what’s going on.  As a performer I have my own battles to deal with in terms of getting something across, and saying something that I feel is pertinent to the moment.  There are a lot of things that do happen, but ultimately I like people to make their own decisions, not only about the performance, and not only about the pianist in relation to the performance, but also about the pieces.

BD:   Was Walker pleased with your performance and the recording?

Bates:   He was.  The premiere of the work was at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., on the Washington Performing Arts Society series.

BD:   Very prestigious!

Bates:   It was quite an honor, and I saw him immediately afterwards.  When Dr. Walker’s happy, he’s bubbling.  He’s got his camera, and he’s bouncing around.  He wants to take everyone’s picture, and he wants everyone to take pictures of him with the soloist, and everyone else.  That is the way he was that night.

BD:   I can imagine, because he’s such a tall lanky figure.

Bates:   [Laughs]  Yes, but he’s very studious, and usually very, very serious.  He’s a very, very studied individual, and you hope that this is what he wants, and you hope he’s pleased.  Of course, I did confer with him immediately prior to the performance, just to let him hear what it was that I was presenting, and see if he would be happy.  I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t making any tremendously major faux pas!  But it was smooth sailing.  He said to me,
“You’re on the right track, and, “You’re fine.  You’re always balancing on that fence between trying to reach what the composer is really trying to get at in terms of his or her statement, and then trying to deal with your own personal statement in regards to that.  You find how to superimpose what the performer does on what the composer has already set down, and see how those things work together.  That’s always an interesting relationship.

BD:   What is the piece you’re working on now?

Bates:   I’ll be giving a premiere of a new piano concerto by Adolphus Hailstork.  He is a on the faculty at Norfolk State University, and has written in many different instrumental forms.  He is quite celebrated as a writer for symphony orchestra.  I’m familiar with the Piano Sonata that he wrote for my teacher, Natalie Hinderas.  I have not had the opportunity to play that work yet, but it certainly is one that’s on my list because it’s a powerful piece.  It’s of a very grand nature and magnitude.  [The recording of that work is shown above-right.  We spoke later of other recordings, including several sent to me by composer Dorothy Rudd Moore.  One features Bates playing MacDowell (1860-1908), Ravel, and Chopin [shown below-right].  Flutist Harold Jones was on one of the other LPs, and Bates remarked...]  
Harold’s wonderful.  I’ve worked with Harold.  He’s a wonderful musician, as is Dorothy.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   When you are setting up your schedule for the coming years, do you try to include music of living American composers, and specifically Black American composers?

Bates:   I try to do it very regularly.  Two weeks ago I gave a recital at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and on that program I had works of Mozart (C Minor Fantasia), Brahms (Handel Variations and the Fugue), the Prelude and Fugue of Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000), an Austrian pianist and composer, Engrams of Arthur Cunningham (1928-97), a Black American composer, and I closed with the Sonata of Bela Bartók.  It was an interesting amalgam, and for me, those kinds of programs are just absolutely ideal.  It
s the kind of thing I like to do very much.

BD:   So, the audience comes and hear something they know, and something which is brand new?

Bates:   Absolutely!  That is the service and responsibility that we, as performing artists, have to society.  We are not images to be placed on pedestals.  We’re not to be seen as elitist entities that are removed from the everyday working individual, and I think that our art, to a large degree, has become that.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You want to be known as just another working stiff???

Bates:   In a sense, yes.  Maybe if people were to view me that way, they would have a greater appreciation for what I do.  They would say,
“This guy’s working just like I am.  He’s sweating out there on that stage.  He’s working hard.  He’s obviously put in a lot of hours to arrive at what he’s going to present there, and people can relate to that.

BD:   Is there more sweat out there on stage, or is there more sweat in the rehearsal studio?

Bates:   There’s more sweat in the rehearsal studio.  Whatever the final sweat is at the concert, there were many, many days like that led up to that final event, believe me.  But it is truly a labor of love, because when you really are involved in the process of making music, it’s something that’s with you when you’re sleeping, when you’re awake, when you’re relaxing, when you’re truly focused on working at the instrument.  It is the sum total of all of that time together that really produces what people get when they see the performer come out on stage.  People come to concerts, and it’s wonderful to see them.  It’s beautiful to see people dressed and looking fabulous.  They come, and it’s a wonderful evening, but for those who either don’t want to come in the height of fashion, or can’t afford to come in the height of fashion, I don’t think they should be any less part of the experience in any way.  It’s truly a democratic thing, and should be available to all of the people.  The more that we can break down the class system, as far as how it exists in relation to the arts, the much happier we’ll all be, because we’ll have greater audiences who will be able to appreciate the music, and we will have musicians who will be much more appreciated.

BD:   When you’re walking down the street looking like a body builder, do you surprise people by saying you
’re a concert pianist?

Bates:   Yes!  I get a lot of pleasure out of that, as a matter of fact.  I was out earlier today, and there were glances from people turning and looking as if to say,
“Where have I seen that guy before?  I’m sure that there were a lot of images that went through their minds.  People have mentioned Arsenio Hall in a couple of instances, and there’s a fellow who’s a body builder that people have mistaken me for by the name of Chris Dickerson.

BD:   You’re very muscular in your arms and your chest.

Bates:   I’m very involved in body building.

BD:   [With a sly grin]  Can you lift your own piano?  [Much laughter]

Bates:   That’s the new act I’m working on!  Hopefully it will get me on the Arsenio Hall Show.  [Laughter continues]  But that certainly does bring around these little slight glances of recognition.  I’ve even had people come up to me and ask if they’ve seen me somewhere before.  I may say perhaps they saw my picture in the paper.  Sometimes I say what I do, and sometimes I don’t.  It depends on my general mood of the moment, but it’s interesting to get people responding that way.  Certainly, I am an amateur athlete in the sense that I have been very, very much involved in body building for over twenty years.

BD:   Do you try to get those who go to body building classes to come into the concert hall, too?

Bates:   Very frequently I do.  I play at a lot of colleges and universities, and give a lot of masterclasses.  I also present workshops and seminars that are specifically designed to reach athletic individuals, who many times may feel that the arts are absolutely the furthest from their particular life experience.  It’s nice to have people who have multi-interests.  What it does is focus on the fact that there are probably many people who have multi-interests.  We are not exclusively into one area or another, and as much education as goes on, it would be a very helpful thing for everybody, and if I can be a part of it, that’s just as helpful as what I do sitting at the keyboard.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How do you divide your career between solo recitals and concerto appearances?

Bates:   It’s pretty much an even breakdown, and then there’s a nice healthy sprinkling of chamber music events.  I’m involved in a program called Gershwin by Request, in which I collaborate with two wonderful operatic singers.  We give a program of music exclusively by George Gershwin.

BD:   Who are the singers?

Bates:   Ben Matthews is the bass-baritone, and Eddye Pierce Young is the soprano.

Eddye Young was a national finalist in the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and winner of the San Francisco Opera Grand Finals. Since her 1979 New York debut she has been in increasing demand, and was described by The New York Times as having "a strong, true and uncommonly attractive soprano sound." Benjamin Matthews is a New York City Opera baritone who had a highly successful two-month run in Rio de Janeiro as the lead in Porgy and Bess. His voice has been described as "...a dominant, cohesive force...pouring forth unfailingly rich tone and grand phrasing throughout the evening."

They do excerpts from Porgy and Bess, and some of the songs.  I play the Three Preludes, six of the songs of Gershwin which I’ve arranged myself from Gershwin’s own arrangements of the song book, and the solo version of Rhapsody in Blue.  That’s a program we’ve been presenting around the country now since the 1986/87 season, which would have commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Gershwin’s death.  [Review of a similar concert given in Singapore in 2013 is shown at the bottom of this webpage.]  We’ve had a lot of fun with that, and it has kept me very busy, running between that and doing chamber concerts with the Fresk String Quartet, or the Audubon Quartet, or with the Borealis Wind Quintet, and in some instances, with the pianist Tamás Vásáry.  We’ve done some two-piano and four-hand concerts, and they’ve been delightful.  I get as much pleasure out of performing in an ensemble with others musicians as I do from playing solo.

BD:   Is there any chance that you’re giving too many concerts per year?

Bates:   I doubt that.  I’m a very ambitious person.  When I get hooked on an idea, or on something that I really want to do, I can be very, very forceful and very single-minded in terms of pursuing it.  I have been very, very ambitious about having a successful solo career since I was about thirteen years old, and at this point [June, 1991] I’m doing about a hundred dates a year, which is certainly healthy.  But I certainly feel that I could handle significantly more and still be able to give myself to it musically and successfully, because I really do my best work when I’m extremely busy.  There’s something about carrying over from one event or one project to another, and feeling a sense of growth.
BD:   You can keep the focus on everything?

Bates:   Yes.  If anything, it enhances the focus.  It’s almost anti-climactic to go out and play a single date, or only two dates, and then go back home.  I like to string them together.  A three- or four-week tour is nice because it gives me a chance to do a lot of things, and feel that I’ve built up some momentum.  That is an important aspect because your ability to tell your own story is something that is a part of the whole inside of your make-up that has to do with what makes you become a good performer.  It’s important to get into the whole framework of that though whatever piece you play, and it takes a while to build up a momentum, to get a full head of steam, and really feel that you’re doing your best.  Certainly you have a period where you feel like the creative juices need to regenerate, so then it’s time to go home.  It’s time to just lie low, practice, look at some new material, or just rest.  But I can handle a lot.

BD:   If you’re spending time in the practice room, and then also devoting time body-building, I would think these two activities would bounce off of each other as relaxation.

Bates:   They do, and that is one of the things that’s helped me to have a certain degree of longevity in terms of my energy level, and my stamina.  Some of my musical colleagues do comment on the fact that I like to work hard.  I can go to long rehearsals and keep up a certain level of morale.  I’m ready to go.  People I’ve toured with say this when we’ve traveled together quite a bit.

BD:   The last date on the tour is still going to be just as energetic as the first one?

Bates:   Yes, and they can sense that’s something I’m aiming for.  I also like being able to go off and get into the gym where it’s very anonymous.  No one knows who I am.  There I
m just another muscle-head training, and that’s good because it gives me a chance to take myself totally away from everything, and go inside myself.  I can hibernate, so to speak, and then come out again having had a chance to regenerate just a bit.

BD:   It seems like a very good balance.

Bates:   I think it is.  I have run into a few other people here and there who have had the same combination of interests, but generally speaking, among the average people it’s looked upon as being a very, very odd thing for those two activities to match up together.

BD:   Do you do any teaching of piano?

Bates:   No, I don’t, although I’ve had about ten years of experience in that direction on the college level.  In the 
70s, I taught for a couple of years at the Oberlin Conservatory in Oberlin, Ohio, and then in the late 70s and into the 80s, I taught at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware.

BD:   Do you have any advice for younger pianists coming along?

Bates:   Oh, my goodness!  [Thinks a moment]  This is a very, very difficult time for a young artist to try to develop, because it seems that the climate right now for the development of a career may not be the most positive.  It’s a time when, financially speaking, people in the country are looking in many different directions, and seeing that there’s not enough money here, and not enough money there.  The arts are suffering a great deal in that regard, meaning that the number of possibilities for young artists to develop and make careers is probably going to be affected very much negatively.  However difficult it has been for a person to develop a career
and it’s been very difficultit’s going to become even more so.  People are going to have to be even more determined than they’ve ever been if they really, really want this.  You’ve really got to love it in order to want to do it, and that’s even more true now.  People have to be extremely willing to sacrifice, and try unusual methods and different means to arrive at the careers that they want.  They have to be willing to concede that those careers may come over a long span of years.  It’s not going to be an overnight sensation.

BD:   You spend twenty years becoming the overnight success.

Bates:   Right, and it may mean aligning themselves with a particular community, with a university, or a conservatory.  You may have to develop a career as a clinician, or as a pedagogue as well as a performer.  Ultimately, that’s probably the better thing for all of us as musicians, because we are then better musicians for having had the experience of working with others.  But more of us who perhaps may not have looked at those options before as being realistic, need to investigate those directions now.  It’s a very, very difficult time, but if one is determined, if one positively cannot live without this music, then I’d say by all means follow your heart and go after it.  But you just need to have your armor on.  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve made some recordings.  Do you play differently in the recording studio than you do in the concert hall?

Bates:   I try not to.  [Both laugh]  Notice that I said
I try...  [More laughter]    

BD:   Do you succeed?
Bates:   It’s an interesting thing...  Based on the last recording I made, I would say yes, I succeeded.  This recording [shown at right] was of the earlier mentioned songs of George Gershwin, plus Three Preludes, and Twenty Children’s Songs of Chick Corea.  I’m very happy with it because of the music that I chose, and because of the response that I’ve gotten from people who have heard it.  When I recorded it, I felt that I did what I wanted to do, and I came away feeling like I gave a performance.  Granted, it was a normal recording situation... you play, you play again, you listen, you play, you play again, you listen!  [Much laughter]  It was typical of that, but what I found was that each and every time I sat down at the keyboard, I was able to go back and pull myself into my own personal discipline and perform, even though it was in an empty concert hall.  I was able to do it that way, so I felt really good about it.

BD:   It
s obvious that there’s not too much editing.

Bates:   No, no.  I feel very strongly that if you start to do more than two takes of anything, you’re really going to lose something in terms of the dynamics that are part of the whole process.  You really do burn out, and there has to be a limit about how picky you’re going get about every little thing, because it’s going to change every day.  You can listen to something, and then you sleep on it.  When you get up the next day, you’re going to listen again, and then you hear other things perhaps that you don’t like as much, or you maybe liked them the first day, and you don’t like them the second day.  Or you like them the second day, but you didn’t like them the first day.  It starts to get confusing, because if the dynamics of the performer are really alive and very, very sensitive, they’re going to change, and they’re going to change every day.

BD:   So, there is no one way to play any piece?

Bates:   There is no one way to play any piece.  I’m glad you put it that way, because I agree wholeheartedly.  That is essentially what we as performers have to accept.  This is why I am so very, very enamored of jazz players.  It
s their willingness and their desire to re-create every time they go out to perform.  They take the atmosphere that’s right for them to make music at that point in time, and not say that they want to play it like they played it Saturday night.  They want to play it according to how they feel now.  That’s the kind of thing I think I was able to reach in my own recording this time, and I was very happy about that.

BD:   Do you have any thoughts about making a record with, say, Wynton Marsalis?

Bates:   It’s interesting you should mention Wynton.  I just saw him the other night in Philadelphia.  He was performing there on the jazz festival, and I have performed with him in the past.  He’s a delight, and I have a great deal of respect for him as a musician.  He has very, very definite ideas about performance, and about what he wants to achieve.  He wants everyone to recognize and respect jazz as art.  If that opportunity were to present itself in the future, I would jump at the chance, because having just these two particular musicians collaborate would be great.  We’ve been friends for a long time, and it would be a gas from that particular standpoint.  He is recognized particularly these days as a jazz player specifically, although he has won Grammys, and he has made a mark for himself as someone who has gone across the board and played both jazz and classical.  But the more we emphasize that particular point, the more that we can, somehow or another, break down some of the lines of demarcation that separate jazz and classical.  We can then begin to deal with them both simply as serious art, and we will have done a tremendous amount in terms of enlightening the musical communities.

BD:   Sometimes you get a jazz player and think he did the Haydn Concerto very well for a jazz player.  Then you get a legitimate concert artist playing some jazz, and you think it was pretty good jazz for a concert player.

Bates:   It would be good if we can get around those reservations.  What it means is that ideally there needs more to be a much more definite kind of education program taking place in the conservatories and universities, that aims at trying to educate people along both lines.  As it stands now, the jazz players go their own way, and the classical players go their own way.  One of the things that would be extremely helpful for classical players, in terms of being able to identify with and survive in the climate today, when the sound of music harmonically has changed so much from the established classics, is having jazz harmony become an absolute essential as far as curricula are concerned.  It should become a requirement.  It would be very, very helpful to emphasize more and more on the part of young musicians to learn how to improvise on their instruments.  Put the printed music aside!  Learn more about harmony, and about how to appreciate what key you’re in, and what chords you’re playing as they’re actually happening, without having to look at them in retrospect.  That would be very, very helpful.  Then we could wind up not being limited to what we see on the page, or what we practice and memorize.  We’re really fortunate to be able to sight-read, but what can we do to the passage of whatever appears on that page?  That is what truly tests what we have to offer as real creative musicians, as opposed to the re-creative process.  While they do intertwine, they should work hand-in-hand with each other.  For classical players, they need to be more in the direction of learning to use their ears as opposed to the eyes.  Then for the jazz players, many of them need to have a greater opportunity to realize that classical musical is not just old stuff, and that it’s not just dead.

BD:   [With mock horror]  You mean it’s not boring???  [Both burst out laughing]

Bates:   What we find is that the greatest players, regardless of their classification, tended to listen to each other.  That’s a lesson that we all need to take very much to heart.

BD:   This is a question I usually ask composers, but I want to ask it of you.  What is the purpose of music?

Bates:   I think the purpose of music is really to offer people an opportunity to look at themselves.  As a subtitle of Art as a larger heading, music is simply our expression of ourselves, our expression of our joys, our fears, our sorrows, and all of those things that make up life for us.  It is an essential part of life.  Part of what makes us human is our need to express ourselves.  Hence, we have literature, and we have the graphic arts, and we have music, and we have dance, and all of these things because they are essential in any intelligent culture.  It is really important that the people within the culture, within the society, have an opportunity to embrace that art in order for it to really have relevance.  We have another kind of demarcation that takes place.  We talked about classical, we talked about jazz, but then we have to talk about pop art.  I think pop art is a necessary entity in any society, because you’re always going to have some people who are not going to be able to say something in the most eloquent way, but they still have something to say.  That is an essential part of the society.  It is important for people to realize that there are many ways in which things can be said, and there are many levels on which they can be said.  Part of the common growth of people, the collective growth as we grow older and we mature, is the ability to begin to realize that we need maybe more and more intelligent ways of appreciating those things that are the essence of life.  We notice it sometimes with people as their musical tastes change as they grow older, and that’s an essential part of education.  When I look at education now, and I see that we have music programs that are being discontinued, we are in essence moving in the wrong direction.  We’re going into the twenty-first century while we’re taking our educational programs back to the nineteenth century.  It doesn’t make any sense.

BD:   As an artist, maybe this is a question you can’t answer.  But if we only have so much money to spread around, should we give to the inner-city or should we give it to arts?

Bates:   Yes, that’s a very difficult question.  The problem though is that we wind up with these either/or situations.  All of us have to appreciate budgetary difficulties because they are a reality.  But if it comes down to either/ors that ask is it going to be the arts or is it going to be this, that, or the other, those are the wrong kinds of decisions to be making.  If there have to be cost cuts, they have to be made across the board through many programs, so that while everyone makes a sacrifice, no one is completely eliminated.  That’s the way it should operate, because it’s very, very difficult to make a moral decision to decide that one specific aspect of an educational nature is more important than another.  It’s very difficult to say science and mathematics are more important than art in education.  I don’t see how you can do that.  It would be heresy to eliminate science, and it would be heresy to eliminate art, just as it would be heresy to eliminate some kind of physical education.  They are all part of the educational process, and we do a disservice to every generation that has to come through a program that operates under a loss of one of those aspects.  As long as there is some kind of a program functioning that allows people to still get some attention and some focus in that direction, it may not be ideal, but to eliminate it altogether makes a larger statement.  It
s as if to say that this wasn’t important in the first place, and that’s what I don’t agree with.  As far as putting it into a context where we would have to make a decision about the arts as opposed to the inner-city, I don’t see how we can even phrase it that way because the fact of the matter is that if the inner-cities die, the communities at large will eventually die as well.  I don’t think it’s a problem of those people there and those other people over there.


BD:   It
s everywhere?

Bates:   It’s everybody’s problem, and while it might not necessarily affect a particular age group at that point in time, it’s going to affect someone down the road, and a great deal of that is what we’re getting right now.  Many of the problems that we looked away from in the past are haunting us right now, so there are many problems that have to be dealt with.  In many ways, the ability to grab young children through art in schools, to get them interested in an instrument, or get them interested in the discipline that’s involved, and the patience that’s involved with starting how to play an instrument, can be the saving grace for a large number of children, be they in an inner-city area, or suburban area, in a private boarding school, or wherever.  Interestingly enough, many of the private boarding schools are culturally just as illiterate as some of the inner-city schools.  We can’t look to everyone to be able to pick up a basketball and be able to dribble like Michael Jordan.  We can’t look to everybody to have that kind of talent, and there are many kids who are looking to that to be their ticket out of a bad environment, a bad neighborhood, or a bad homelife.  But maybe they don’t necessarily have quite the talent that somebody else does to make it.  They’re not fortunate to have it fall their way, but maybe they have some other talent.

BD:   Is an interest in the arts perhaps their ticket out of a bad attitude?

Bates:   Yes, I would say definitely!  We need to look for any kind of a way that we can find, and it’s up to us, as the adults in the society, to be responsible enough to give children many options.  If we can’t reach a kid through trombone lessons, then maybe that kid’s interested in the violin, or the saxophone, or the penny whistle.  But let’s find out what this kid’s skills are, because whatever it may cost us, if we don’t solve the problem now, it’s going to cost us more problems on the other end if that kid becomes a statistic, or incarcerated in a prison.  We’re going have to pay to take care of them then.  So, it
s an interesting trade-off because we can eliminate some of the negatives, and there’s so much negative in the large cities now.

BD:   You’re saying we must find more preventive medicine rather than just curative medicine?

Bates:   Yes, absolutely.  
I am hoping that down the road we will do a significantly larger number of recordings, because I think it’s important to have some things documented.  I’ve been in a very fortunate position in my career to have this kind of visibility.  It’s important not only for a career, but as a Black-American musician for it to be documented, and for there to be as much around of the kinds of things that I’ve tried to contribute to the overall musical environment.  [To see a list (with links) of other Black musicians I have interviewed, click HERE.]

BD:   Thank you for being such an advocate for humanity, and for spending this time with me today.

Bates:   Thank you.  It’s my pleasure.


© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on June 24, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1994 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.