Even with the frantic pace of teaching and performing, internationally known jazz drummer and vocalist Grady Tate makes time to come back to his alma mater. This weekend, the North Carolina Central University alumnus returns for the annual NCCU Jazz Festival that bears his name. Along with Tate, the excellent bill includes newly settled Durhamite Branford Marsalis, locally based jazz diva Nnenna Freelon, singer Freddy Cole (brother of Nat) and Ira Wiggins with the NCCU Jazz Band. But at the spiritual and literal center of the festival is the world-renowned Tate. Nurturing students through workshops and one-on-one guidance sessions, gracing the community with his dynamic drumming and voice, Tate has been helping to create fertile ground in Durham for jazz talent for the past 40 years. For the past 13 years, his name has graced the title of the festival at NCCU.
Born and raised in Durham, and playing drums by the time he was 5 years old, Tate claims that even as a toddler he had the timing of a clock. Tate is well known and highly respected within the jazz community. He's recorded and played with jazz greats such as Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Stanley Turner and many others. In his own words, he says, "I've recorded with everybody."
These days, Tate devotes most of his time to his real passion, which is singing. "The thing I love about singing is the direct communication because you're using language. You don't have to insinuate anything. You can tell people exactly how you feel, whatever the subject matter is. I choose to deal with love because the hate thing doesn't work for me."
Tate's latest vocal CD is titled All Love (released on a Japanese label, it isn't available yet in the United States). At age 70, Tate just keeps getting better at his craft. "My voice is better than it's ever been," he explains. "The control is there." Tate says that his singing "has become rather easy. I don't have to worry or think about it. I act on the moment according to how I feel and that's what determines how I sing and how I phrase. It's more fun than anything I've ever done in my life. And that's what I'm going to be doing at the Grady Tate Jazz Festival."
Jazz vocalist and Durham resident Nnenna Freelon will be performing a duet with Tate at the festival, "I Fall In Love Too Easily," which the duo recorded on Freelon's first CD, Nnenna Freelon, in 1992. The two are longtime mutual admirers of each other's music. Freelon says, "As much as I love Grady's drumming, it is his voice that truly moves me. Few singers, male or female, can touch Grady for his sensitive phrasing and emotion. He leads me to believe that old saying that jazz singers just get better with time."
With time, comes wisdom, and North Carolina Central University has perfected the Grady Tate Jazz Festival over the course of 13 years. One of the best parts of the gathering is that major jazz artists come to Durham not only to share their music with the community, but to share their knowledge with students. Dr. Ira Wiggins, the director of the jazz studies program at N.C. Central, put together the first festival in 1990. He was inspired to start the festival for his students to give them what he didn't have growing up in rural Kinston--exposure to high-caliber jazz musicians. As Grady Tate, the festival's namesake asserts, "In New York and New Orleans and Chicago you can hear jazz every night of the week in many different settings. New York City is the hub of jazz. But when we come to Durham, we really try to expose these students to the hippest things that we have."
Learning directly from the major jazz artists is a large component of the Jazz Studies Program at Central. Through the festival, and through N.C. Central's jazz program, students get the rare opportunity to meet with major jazz artists such as Marsalis, Tate, Freelon, Jimmy Heath, Vanessa Rubin and many others. Many of these artists are also master teachers, such as Tate, who has taught jazz vocals and improvisation at Howard University for the past 11 years.
Russell Lacey, a junior enrolled in the jazz studies program, says, "I expected working with the major artists to be intimidating, but it's not. This year I've worked with Jimmy Heath, Dick Oatts, Winard Harper ... and they've all been so down to earth that's it's easy to learn from them. We get to hang out with them and go out to eat with them and see how they are in a day-to-day sort of way. I've learned just as much about life from them as I have about music."
Workshops provide students with a supportive and nurturing venue to interact with artists, talk with them one on one, work on musical arrangements and actually perform with them. "There's no substitute for that," says Wiggins. "I have students that are writing, arranging and composing and when Clyde Hampton comes down and suggests this or that, they're getting the information first-hand. They're not getting it from me or from a book. They're getting it from the people who wrote for the Count Basie Orchestra. It's almost like studying with Bach or Mozart."
NCCU is the first undergraduate institution in the state to offer a degree in jazz studies and has a diversity of programming. There are currently about 45 students enrolled in the program. Throughout his years as director, Wiggins has exposed students to musicians and composers such as Frank Foster, Keith Copeland, Steve Wilson. Under his leadership, the program has included participants who span the range of instruments, vocalists, nationalities, races, genders and ages. Many of Wiggins' students have gone on to play professionally as a result of their experiences at NCCU.
"It's important to me," says Wiggins, "that the students understand it's really not about anything but the music." The same could be said for the annual festival. Yet, as it should do, the music involves so much more.
Branford Marsalis, Nnenna Freelon, Freddy Cole, Grady Tate, Ira Wiggins and the NCCU Jazz Ensemble, appear Friday and Saturday, April 18 and 19, 8 p.m., at the Carolina Theater, Durham. For more information contact NCCU ticket office at (919) 530-5170 or Carolina Theatre at (919) 560-3030.