Chickasaw classical composer and 2011 Emmy award winner Jerod Tate is true to his roots, deciding early in his composing career that he would write music based only on Indian themes. “Indian country is full of stories and I’m, like, a hyper-story guy. There’s so much inspiration here, an endless amount of music that can be written to complement a story or a legend from our past. In our tribe, we have little people and scary forest people as well as star and cloud people — I use them all as inspiration for my work.”
Tate was born with performance creativity in his genes, a combination of Oklahoma Chickasaw father, who was classical pianist and baritone vocalist, and an Irish mother from Nebraska, who was a dancer and choreographer. “I grew up with a whole bunch of theatre and music in the house watching my Dad play Bach and Rachmaninoff. The first instrument I gravitated to was a piano — a mini-orchestra with so much range of expression — and I knew I was hooked, that music was my path by the time I was 9 years old.”
As Artistic Director for the Chickasaw Chamber Music Festival and Composer-in-Residence for the Chickasaw Summer Arts Academy, he has been named a cultural Ambassador for the State of Oklahoma. “My heritage is very important to me, coming from both the men and women who make up who we are. Together my awesome dad and his mother, my grandmother, gifted me a wonderful balance of what it means to be a Chickasaw man. Their combined experience has been a tour de force in our family and I owe my cultural identity to both of them.”
Appearing recently on an Indian radio station in Tucson, Arizona (Gabriel Ayala’s Liner Notes show on Pasqua Yaqui station KPYT), Tate explained many of his compositions and how they came to be…like The Thunder Song (or Taloah He Loah): “This is chamber music for a solo tympani, a percussion instrument like a kettle drum, made famous in Peter and the Wolf. In our legend, when it thundered it meant the good and bad spirits were having a match and our hunters would shoot their guns into the clouds to assist the good spirits. I wrote this solo piece completely inspired by the thunder beings we have in our peoples history.”
Asked by both his radio host and Indian Country Today Media Network about how his musical path evolved, his response was simple: “I believe American Indians have a natural ability to represent themselves musically in the classical fine arts so I use my Chickasaw influence the same way Indian painters to when they use cultural icons and abstract them into a modern expression. I do the same in music with round-dance rhythms and Native language chanting . Famous composers like Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky and Ludwig von Beethoven all infused their national identity with their classical training. I do the same in dramatic and romantic works. I'm highly expressive about my Indian pride.”
His avant-garde approach has earned kudos from reviewers at the New York Times (“new music unsullied by stereotypes”), the San Francisco Classical Music Examiner (“utterly spellbinding”) and the Washington Post (“Tate’s connection to nature is apparent as is his ability to effectively infuse classical music with American Indian nationalism”).
Academically, Tate owns a bachelor's degree in piano performance and master's degree in performance and composition. Intrinsically, his inspiration comes not from the academic world, but from his heart. “I like to do bold compositions representative of pan-Indian sounds all with strings and woodwinds and percussion. I feel uncorked when I can do something that expresses Native pride and keeps the listener wanting more. I’m all about expressing my passionate emotions as a Chickasaw man. I follow my impulse and try not to over-dictate exactly what happens. With an affinity for theatre, music and romantic expression, I let those creative qualities take me where I need to go.”
Where it has taken him to-date is to many awards and much acclaim, recognition he wants to share going forward. He's aware, he says, that his success “inspires our people to excel like the rising tide that raises all ships. I know I’m in the lens of other Indian people and, especially kids, if I can make them feel like they, too, can achieve — that gets me excited.”
Learn more about Tate and his Chickasaw classical music compositions at www.jerodtate.com.