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Q&A with Detroit Jazz Musician Deon Yates

B.L.A.C. Detroit speaks with saxophonist Deon Yates about his music, when he fell in love with jazz and what he hopes 2013 will bring.

Detroiter Deon Yates is known as a saxophone player. 

But the first time he got on stage as a kid, it was a flute that he played. And the experience? Well, that hooked him.

Fast forward years later and his music is climbing jazz charts, he’s gracing stages at keystone places such as Baker’s Keyboard Lounge and hosting musical events that feature other musical masterminds.

The 44-year-old musician will host a special Valentine’s Day concert this month—”Valentine’s with RnR (Rick Braun, Richard Elliot, Lin Roundtree and Deon Yates & Friends)”—at The Scottish Rite Cathedral inside the Masonic Temple.

8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 14
Scottish Rite Cathedral at the Masonic Temple
500 Temple Ave., Detroit
313-638-2724 or

How did you get into music?

I actually started playing in elementary school. It was the third grade and we had just gotten a band teacher at my elementary school on the east side of Detroit, and I wanted to play the drums. I was 8 years old and I started out as the drummer, and because so many people wanted to play drums, the band teacher asked certain people to change instruments. So he said if I wanted to stay in the band, would I volunteer to switch instruments, and I started playing flute. Everything else is history!

So how many instruments do you play now?

I play woodwinds, so I do all saxes, flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon; piano. I do a little bit of bass. I’m horrible on guitar, but I can do bass. I’ve actually played violin and upright bass in high school and in college—so a lot of instruments.

What made you say, “This is something I think I can pursue as a career full time?”

I was working as a professional musician at a very early age. In junior high school we had a jazz quintet; we did performances for Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit and we used to perform at the Manoogian Mansion and did things and Cobo Hall, and whenever they opened up the school they would call us. We were free labor! We were good for our age—and we were actually good even if we were adults. Eventually, we would get to go on gigs with professional players. So they might pay us 40 or 50 bucks when an adult probably would’ve made 100 bucks. But we didn’t know any better. I mean, I’m 14 years old playing at Bert’s Place making 40 or 50 bucks. I was happy.

What’s the main difference between the kid who played his first jazz song on a flute and the guy who gets up on stage and plays saxophone now? Do you ever channel that same kid when you’re up on stage?

I think the main difference between that kid then and this kid now is probably about 200 pounds! I was a little, bitty peanut-head boy. But that’s about the main difference, because I’ve never had stage fright. My teachers always told me, ”Don’t be afraid of playing a wrong note. If you’re gonna play a wrong note, make it a loud wrong note, make sure everybody hears it.” So that removed the fear in me, because in jazz we’re taught there’s no such thing as a wrong note.

Will 2013 bring a new album? Or more live shows?

Actually, 2013 is the end of a transition period and a new beginning on a whole new outlook. 2012 was a lot of legwork. I played gigs and things with a lot of different people; I played on tours with a lot of different people. I went back to school in 2009 and I’m currently still a full-time student, but in the midst of running my own production company, performing with different artists, performing with myself in my own band, I will be receiving my bachelor of arts in communications in April.

So with your company, you’re able to do everything yourself, then?

Yes, and it’s been a blessing because every class that I take can directly influence and affect what I’m doing with my music. Before I’d have to hire a publicist to write press releases and get all this stuff done, but I can do it all myself. Everything from the photography, the graphic design—I design all my album covers.

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