Jazz 88.3’s deejay Leo Cates enjoys his artistic freedom

Donna P. Crilly and Donna P. Crilly

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Healthy, passionate, small-framed and aged, one of Jazz 88.3’s most seasoned deejays now hosts his 10-12 p.m. Monday and Wednesday show sans pay.

Leo Cates has been “celebrating artistic freedom” for 23 years in March, and recently developed a passion for tutoring English as a second language to students at San Diego City College from more than 170 countries. He considers it a “global village” and devotes 18 hours per week to feeding his mind with culture while helping students develop English skills.

His jazz roots stem from growing up in the greater Los Angeles area and listening to his favorite radio station, KBCA. From there, his brain became entrenched with all things jazz.

“He’s a nut,” said Chris Springer, Latin jazz deejay on Saturday evenings for Jazz 88.3, referring to Cates’ wild, unmistakable personality and passion for the art.

“He’s a walking jazz encyclopedia and is really high up about it,” Springer said.

At 15, Cates was a trombone player in the grand finale of 1962’s “The Music Man,” which was nominated for Best Picture. The title of the song is “76 Trombones,” which features Cates marching in a parade and proudly sliding his way through the Midwestern town.

Cates started building his trombone-playing repertoire as a child in elementary school. At that time, the children were required to play instruments where every kid in class jumped on a different instrument before he could leave his seat, and all that was left was a trombone.

The accomplished, free-spirited soul also has a 14-year history as a journalist writing about horse races in North County. A previous passion that he simply “lost interest” in.

“He’s an enigmatic person,” said Ron Dhanifu, weekday afternoon deejay for Jazz 88.3. “Leo is a staunch believer in the tradition of music.”

Enigmatic indeed. In July 1997, Cates abruptly decided to stop eating meat.

“I take what I need, you know, just keepin’ it low on the food chain,” Cates said. He refers to the transition as being a “natural thing.” Since then, Cates has not seen a movie, owned a television, phone or computer, and drives around in what he calls “The Jazz Mobile,” his first and only car: a 1964 Ford Mustang.

The deejays at the station have a kinship and that the 17,000 song library comes from need for “jazz-passionistas” like Cates and the other deejays, said Dhanifu.

His passion for jazz is slowly dissipating, though. It is something that he seems to naturally be growing out of as he explores his own “truths” of life, he said.

“My life is a movie and I’m in it right now. I’m a paradigm of simplicity,” Cates said.

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