J.T. Bates sits in a booth at Icehouse, nursing a beer, pondering the question at hand: What local drummers does he admire?
He chuckles to himself in advance of the magnitude of his response — and then reels off 27 names, replete with their distinctive charms and/or an anecdote about playing beside them or watching them in action.
When the subject is music, Bates' passion pours forth in a gush of ideas and opinions. Only fitting for a musician who would be near the top of any such list.
"I am a little bit of a loudmouth against the homogenization of music," he said. "People need to be exposed to things they don't normally hear. And whether you are in charge of a house gig or a radio show or writing about music, you need to throw a little water at the socket every once in a while."
At 41, Bates has been short-circuiting smug preconceptions about music for decades. Now in his dual role as player and impresario, he is in charge of a much-loved house gig — booking "J.T.'s Jazz Implosion" every Monday night at Icehouse in south Minneapolis, a destination for smart listeners that he first initiated in the Turf Club's Clown Lounge nearly 20 years ago.
His large, rawboned frame moves with the grace of a dancing bear as he adorns stages all over town. Over a recent 48-hour period this summer, he performed soulfully funky organ jazz with his Grain Trio at the Amsterdam, galvanized the Viking Bar with Buck Owens-style honky tonk alongside Erik Koskinen, engaged in acoustic interplay at the Turf's jazz brunch, and finished off with electronically tinged experimental music at the Kitty Cat Klub.
His commitment is infectious and cherished among those who know Bates on and off the bandstand.
"I feel like I saved a lot of money on college because I know J.T.," said Jeremy Ylvisaker, a guitarist a few years older than Bates, who first saw his picture in a music store — "this big bearded guy in sandals" — and now plays with him in the art-rock ensemble Alpha Consumer. "It would be hard to overstate his influence on me as a friend and a musician, and there are tons of us out here who feel that way."
Brian Liebeck, the co-owner of Icehouse and the best man at Bates' wedding in June, sums it up best: "J.T. is just a guy you never want to disappoint."
The family business
It is no fluke that music is in Bates' DNA. His father, Don Bates, is a trumpeter who recently retired after 33 years of teaching band at Hopkins High School. J.T. is the youngest of three brothers, including highly regarded local bassist Chris Bates and music producer/saxophonist David Bates.
The record collections of his father and brothers provided a phenomenal listening library. He'd peruse liner notes to track down drummers who caught his ear, and was a fan of such session pros as Steve Gadd and Vinnie Colaiuta. "I'd be like, 'Oh, so Jim Keltner [another ace session drummer] is from Oklahoma; well, who else is from Oklahoma?' " he said.
At 16, Bates went by himself to see influential drummer Paul Motian and "has never been the same since. I saw Max Roach the same year and both were just so spatial and so comfortable not playing. Motian especially was about, 'What is the sound I am creating and how does it fit in with the sounds around me?' Just a huge influence on me."
A few years later he stumbled upon the Clown Lounge in St. Paul. "The place was empty except for other band members who were going to play." But he hung out afterward with Dave Wiegardt, the former Magnolias drummer who was booking the basement space. "And Dave took me under his wing."
Looking back on those early "J.T.'s Jazz Implosions" at the club, Bates' business ignorance was bliss. "Because it was a place to hang, I tried to present music that was a little raw and different from what you'd catch at other clubs in town — it was the music that I loved."
"It became sort of a hallowed ground for the people who showed up," said saxophonist and bassist Mike Lewis, who grew up playing with Bates in the trio Fat Kid Wednesdays and is now best known for his membership in Happy Apple.
Among the Clown Lounge regulars was Liebeck, a musician and lighting designer who eventually began telling Bates of his dream of opening up his own venue. In June 2012 — 18 months after Mondays at the Clown Lounge were discontinued — he and chef Matt Bickford opened Icehouse, bringing in Bates and Wiegardt to help run the music.
A recent trio gig at Icehouse reveals how the connections Bates develops spiral forward. The venue was packed due to the presence of keyboardist John Medeski, a relentlessly curious stylist who isn't afraid to soar off into dissonantly trippy electronics or dig deep into the grit and gumbo of jam-band grooves, sometimes over the course of the same song.
The other member of the trio, and the one who put the band together, was guitarist Todd Clouser, a local boy made good who moved to Mexico nearly a decade ago.
"I remember using a fake ID to slip into Clown Lounge for Fat Kid Wednesdays when I was 17 or 18," Clouser said. "Back then, J.T. was always supportive, always patient and encouraging, when he could have easily been pretentious and treated me in a different way."
Perched between one of his heroes and one of the multitude he has mentored, Bates was the least renowned member of the trio. But their two panoramic sets of jazz-infused funk-rock left little doubt about the depth of mutual respect among three kindred spirits.
"It absolutely feels like things have been falling into place the past few years," said Bates, who released his first solo album in December ("Open Relationships"). He mentions his new wife and the two children he inherited in the recent marriage and how much they have grounded him. He talks about all the people, musicians and listeners who have responded to his passion over the years.
"I am incredibly grateful for that. It is a reason why I haven't gone on to a bigger city. I have real, honest connections to so many people here. Why would I leave that behind?"
Carving out his own scene
This fall he will commute back and forth between a teaching gig at the University of Minnesota in Morris, and retaining his Icehouse gig. He estimates he is "about 30 percent" of the way toward his ideal situation, where he'd be booking a national-caliber act six to eight times a year.
He mentions getting a sponsor, maybe a liquor company or somebody, who could help defray the expenses of bringing a piano in and out of the bar (a major expense). Most of the Mondays would still be devoted to the quirky "Implosions" — regular opportunities to put lightning in a bottle, or at least throw some water on the socket.
"Tim Berne was the one who did it for me," he said, relishing last year's appearance of the celebrated saxophonist.
"We had 180 people come out to see Tim Berne," Bates emphasized. "That's an audience that shows there is a market for this kind of music. Who else is going to serve that market? The Walker, maybe, but then it will be some sort of big project.
"Besides," Bates added, "if there is a part of me that wants to put my stamp on it, it is that this is just a bar for some people. And that means that there will be a guy in here when Tim Berne is playing who has never heard anything like it before. The chance of something like that happening is one of the things that keeps me going."
Britt Robson is a Twin Cities-based writer.