Tampa Bay saxophonist had money saved, so he’s using time in isolation to work on his technique

He is arguably the most accomplished saxophonist the Bay area has ever produced.

click to enlarge Tampa Bay saxophonist had money saved, so he’s using time in isolation to work on his technique
c/o David Pate

When I talked to David Pate, who was at home in Clearwater, he had just finished playing a series of Bach sonatas on alto flute for 45 minutes. Not blowing a blazing solo to a Coltrane track, but working through a 300-year-old piece of music note-for-note.

“I want to keep up my proficiency on the instrument and it’s for my own enjoyment,” Pate said. “So much of what I do is not that.”

What Pate mostly does is blow ripping improvisations in a jazz setting. At 65, he is arguably the most accomplished saxophonist the Bay area has ever produced. And while he did a stint in New York, he has spent most of his time working in the Bay area. That and his versatility make him what’s known as a “first call” player for non-jazz gigs. When The Who jammed 50 orchestral musicians on stage at Amalie Arena last September, Pate was in their number. (He had a quick chat with Pete Townshend in the men’s room during pre-tour rehearsals in South Florida.)

This story is part of a series about how musicians are coping with life during the COVID-19 pandemic— from a creative, financial and emotional standpoint. The subjects are those who make their living as full-time musicians, not as a sideline. If you fit into this category and would like to share your story, email: [email protected]

Now Pate, like everyone else, is making his music solo—really, really solo. Springtime is when musicians of his ilk make their nut, as he calls it. That’s been taken away.

“I’ve already lost four or five grand this season,” he said offhandedly. But unlike many pro musicians, Pate is not in desperate straights. Years ago, he developed the discipline to save money during prime earning periods. He’s also been a part-time music teacher at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg for 36 years. That brings in extra cash. Pate teaches six Gibbs High School students individually via Facebook Messenger on Fridays—an hour for seniors, half-hour for the others.

He also has Social Security checks coming in, which certainly help but don’t cover everything.

What Pate misses most is playing with other people, even more so than in front of an audience.

“Especially playing jazz,” he said. “It’s so dependent on what the other guy plays. It’s different every time. I miss the guys. I miss the interaction. But I can sit here for hours and play my horn, play along with different media. Right now, at least, I don’t think I’m going to lose it.”

His mind, that is. 

Pate is certainly not going to lose his musical proficiency. Musicians have an advantage over many of us in that they can immerse themselves in their instruments and be productive for hours at a time, mitigating whatever boredom, frustration and stir-craziness that such extreme social isolation can cause. All players approach their private work differently. Pate’s method is holistic rather than sticking to a programmed practice regimen.

“I have a set of personal rules: I do something every day for my mind, body and spirit,” he explained. That means 25 miles on his bicycle. That means spending time reading.

And, of course, that means playing those horns. He likes to mix it up between his instruments: tenor and soprano sax, bass clarinet, alto flute, flute, clarinet, piccolo (and a baritone sax and an alto sax in the closet for use if necessary, although he doesn’t practice them). 

Tenor sax is his main tool. During this alone time, he’s been able to focus on what he calls the “microscopic” work. Rather than running scales or playing solos in search of new ideas, he boils his playing down to single notes. We’re getting in the weeds here, but this is what it entails: Pate plays one note to perfection, then focuses on the overtones applicable to that note on the horn. He then does the same thing with a second note, after which he works on honing the transition between the two notes. 

“If you look at it through a magnifying glass, [the playing] can seem clean,” he said. “But look through a microscope and it’s pretty dirty.” Pate is effectively using his solitude to polish his technique to a gleam. Such laser-focused practice, he said, takes too much energy when there’s a gig that night. 

Another technique Pate employs is playing while watching TV, switching his mental focus between the horn and the screen. (On the day of our interview, he’d watched “The Andy Griffith Show.”) He explained that this exercise helps him play his horn in a more dextrous, spontaneous way.

Pate has no plans to livestream a performance, in large part because he does not own a computer (although he does have a smartphone). Even so, he finds a real positive in the technology that enables connectivity while most everyone is sheltered in their homes.

“Everybody’s sharing everything,” he said. “And people don’t have to worry about paying for it if they can’t. The art is getting out there, which I think is kinda cool.”

“Imagine if this was 1985, no Internet, and suddenly it was mandated that there were no more shows, no more concerts.”

Let’s not.

David Pate is saxophonist/flutist/clarinetist who plays mostly jazz but also performs classical music, in pit bands for musicals, and other formats. Interviewed Wed., March 26.

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Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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