The Brotherhood is a premier band whose wide player recognition is rooted in the Richmond jazz continuum.
The most seasoned members, Dr. Weldon Hill and James “Saxsmo” Gates, are educators who honed their skills playing with artists from a previous generation. The youngest member, drummer Billy Williams Jr., is a millennial. The band’s founder and bassist Mike Hawkins, who came of age in the 90s, leads the middle.
The double bass is a large, unwieldy but nevertheless subtle instrument. Its deep, low-end sound is a staple in the mix, but people will notoriously talk through a bass solo as part of the live. Unlike the high, demanding notes of a lead instrument, such as the guitar or saxophone, low notes permeate the environment. In jazz, the bass sets the beat and sets the harmonic context. Deep notes require deep understanding and a willingness to be grounded.
Substantial and self-effacing, Hawkins is a bass player par excellence. Born in Alexandria, he was fascinated by the instrument as a child watching the electric bass players on “American Bandstand”. He was initially less attracted to jazz.
“My original goal was to be a Go-Go star,” Hawkins recalls, referring to the heavy-drum funk genre that ruled the Washington, DC universe in the last decades of the 20th century. Hawkins postponed college until his mid-twenties. His professor at Virginia State University introduced him to the double bass and tried to get him to listen to jazz. “My teacher gave me a bunch of tapes,” Hawkins says. “I would erase them and put Go-Go stuff on them.”
But by chance, a tape of keyboardist Herbie Hancock’s classic “Maiden Voyage” survived long enough for Hawkins to listen to it with new ears during the second semester of his sophomore year.
“It opened up a whole other world,” Hawkins recalls. “That’s where my jazz journey began. I almost got kicked out of school because I practiced, listened and transcribed all the time. I pretty much stopped going to class.”
He also began frequenting 1990s venues like Benjamin’s while learning to perform in Doc Branch’s Friday night jam at Rick’s. Connections made on the local scene eventually led him to play with former Count Basie saxophonist Johnny Payton’s Renaissance Band.
“I really didn’t deserve to be in that group, because I really wasn’t ready,” admits Hawkins. “The sad thing is you have all these great, great Richmond musicians like Dave Hoggard, Dave Williams and Tuscan Jasper, and there’s nothing really documented about those people.”
Hawkins received his graduate studies at Queens College, City University of New York and studied with an elite team of New York musicians, then the jazz center of the universe. These relationships led to his first regular high-profile gig, five years in pianist Cyrus Chestnut’s band. Still, Hawkins maintained his relationship with Richmond and returned in 2002 with an established reputation and an idea of who he wanted to play.
“I used to see [James ‘Saxsmo’] Gates and Weldon Hill in a band called the East West Quartet at a little place called Woody’s on Grace Street,” Hawkins explains. “I always thought that one day I would play with these guys. And when I came back, they took me under their wing and treated me like I was one of their own.
They were mentors as well as bandmates. In addition to performance careers, the two are educators at Virginia State University. Continuing on the model of the older players who came before them, Hawkins didn’t let his talent run wild either.
Director of the Billy Taylor Jazz Studies program, Gates inspired Hawkins to continually improve.
“He really challenged me to do my best, in different ways,” the bassist said. “It was a bit scary because I had to get out of myself and go to a different level.”
For fiery Gates, son of saxophonist James Gates Sr., there is no local musician.
“I grew up in a house with a lot of older musicians, and they all hated being called locals,” Gates says. “I never heard of a local player in New York or Boston when I was a student at Berklee [College of Music].”
Indeed, where you live does not reflect the quality of your game; as everyone understands after watching an opening band from Richmond blow away the visiting headliners. If that held true in the last century, it holds true even more today, when the centralized commercial power of big-city record labels has crumbled into streaming bits and bytes.
But the tradition of jazz has always been that of live performance.
“That’s what it’s all about,” says Gates. “What I try to play is pure and extremely honest. If we’re going to play a blues, we’re not going to any page in the ‘Real Book’ [a collection of scores for jazz standards.] That’s not what they were doing then, so that’s not what we’re going to do now.
If Gates is the fire of the group, Dr. Weldon Hill is its eloquent veneer. The pianist shares some of the gravity of Duke Ellington, whose sacred music was the subject of his doctoral thesis at the Catholic University of America.
“He’s a technical master through and through,” says Hawkins. “No matter the style of music, no matter what you ask him, he knows exactly what to do, how to do it and goes even further. From him I learned that you have to do what you do best, at least best of your abilities, and do it differently than others.
Percussionist Billy Williams echoes this sentiment: “Weldon is the class and elegance of the band. It’s super moving, yet present in a way that’s informed with depth, intelligence, and class.
The youngest player in the band, Williams is increasingly difficult to schedule for live gigs.
“He’s an amazing drummer, there’s never a lost note,” says Hawkins. “He knows exactly what the drums are supposed to do. And he does it with such flair and precision. Obviously I’m not the only one who sees that, because these days he plays everywhere, all over the world. It’s hard for me to have it.
It’s a self-created problem, and not a terrible one to have.
“Mike [Hawkins] is probably most responsible for my domestic and international career,” says Williams. “He really invested in me in terms of the game. He saw the potential and really showcased it. The Brotherhood is the name of the band, but they really are like big brothers to me, in music and in life.
The bond described by the drummer is a deep bond in the continuous and living tradition that is jazz. It is not an unbroken chain. Many of the older generation have passed away. The places are ablaze and fade into the decor of the city. After Doc Branch’s venerable Friday night jam sessions at Emilios went (temporarily) dark, Hawkins picked up the slack. It holds open concerts every two weeks at Orbital Music Park, located at 2100 Tomlynn St. in Richmond.
From the outside, Orbital is a nondescript warehouse north of Broad Street and west of I-95. Inside, it’s a cozy, funky, and creative oasis lit by Christmas lights and filled with colorful furniture, artwork, and instruments. Surprisingly, every other Sunday at 6 p.m. musicians can sit down with some of the best players in the area. Hawkins is the center of this pocket universe, not center stage, but still center stage in the music.
He seems to know that playing the long game isn’t the brightest but keeps the flame alive.