Bates was born in Beckenham, Kent, and attended Sedgehill School. While at this school, he also attended the Centre for Young Musicians in London (1971–77), where he learned trumpet, piano, and violin. In 1977-78 he studied at Morley College. In 1978 he enrolled at the Royal College Of Music to study composition but left after two weeks.
Bates founded Human Chain in 1979 and in the 1980s he rose to prominence in a jazz orchestra called Loose Tubes.
In 1991, he started his own 19-piece jazz orchestra Delightful Precipice . He also put together the Powder Room Collapse Orchestra (which recorded Music for The Third Policeman) , and created Circus Umbilicus, a musical circus show .
Bates has appeared as a sideman as a member of Dudu Pukwana's Zila , Tim Whitehead's Borderline , Ken Stubbs' First House , Bill Bruford's Earthworks , Sidsel Endresen and in the bands of George Russell and George Gruntz. He has performed alongside Michael Brecker, Tim Berne, Christian Jarvi, Vince Mendoza, David Sanborn, Kate Rusby and Don Alias.
In recent years, Bates has concentrated on writing large scale compositions on commission. These include:"Dream Kitchen" for percussionist Evelyn Glennie
"Fine Frenzy" for the Shobhana Jeyasingh Dance Company
"What It's Like to be Alive", a piano concerto for Joanna MacGregor and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
"2000 Years Beyond UNDO", a concerto for electric keyboard which was performed at the millennium Barbican Festival
Bates worked closely with director Lucy Bailey on several theatre projects, including Gobbledegook for the Gogmagogs, Baby Doll, (Birmingham Rep, National Theatre, Albery Theatre), Stairs to the Roof (Chichester Festival Theatre), The Postman Always Rings Twice (West Yorkshire Playhouse, Albery Theatre) and Titus Andronicus (The Globe Theatre). They also worked on a short film You Can Run. Other theatre work includes Greg Doran’s production of As You Like It (RSC), and Campbell Graham’s Out There!.
Bates was the inaugural artistic director of the music festival FuseLeeds in 2004. He used this opportunity to initiate the first orchestral commission for Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. Django also commissioned sixty composers including Laurie Anderson, Gavin Bryars, Sir Patrick Moore and John Zorn, to write one bar each. He then quilted these bars into the piece "Premature Celebration", which was performed by Evan Parker and the London Sinfonietta to celebrate Parker’s 60th birthday.
The Wire voted Bates "Best UK Jazz Composer" in 1987 and 1990. In 1997, he won the Jazzpar Prize. In 2008, he was nominated for the PRS New Music Award. He was awarded a fellowship by the Leeds College of Music in 1995.
In 2002, he was a tutor at the Banff Centre jazz programme alongside Jim Black and Dave Douglas.
In July 2005 Bates was appointed as Professor of Rhythmic Music at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory (RMC) in Copenhagen. He was appointed visiting professor of jazz at the Royal Academy of Music in London in September 2010.
In September 2011 Django Bates was appointed Professor of Jazz at HKB Bern Switzerland. Human Chain (1986)
Cashin' In (EG, 1988) with Human Chain
Music for The Third Policeman (Ah Um, 1990)
Summer Fruits (and Unrest) (JMT, 1993)
Autumn Fires (and Green Shoots) (JMT, 1994)
Winter Truce (and Homes Blaze) (JMT, 1995)
Good Evening...Here is the News (1995)
Like Life (1997)
Quiet Nights (1998)
You Live and Learn...(Apparently) (2004)
Spring is Here (Shall we Dance?) (2008)
Beloved Bird (2010)
Saluting Sgt Pepper (2017) with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band
With Loose TubesLoose Tubes (1985)
Delightful Precipice (1986)
Open Letter (1988)
Dancing On Frith Street (recorded live 1990) (2010)
Säd Afrika (recorded live 1990) (2012)
With Billy JenkinsGreenwich (1985)
Uncommerciality Vol 1 (1986)
Scratches of Spain (1987)
With First HouseEréndira (1985)
With Bill Bruford's EarthworksEarthworks (1987)
All Heaven Broke Loose (1991)
Stamping Ground (1994)
Heavenly Bodies (1997)
With Iain BallamyBalloon Man (1989)
All Men Amen (1995)
With Sidsel EndresenSo I Write (1990)
With Julian ArgüellesSkull View (1997)
With othersDudu Pukwana – Life in Bracknell and Willisau (1983)
Tim Whitehead’s Borderline – English People (1983)
Dudu Pukwana – Zila '86 (1986)
Social Systems – Research (1987)
The Dedication Orchestra – Spirits Rejoice (1992)
Hank Roberts – Little Motor People (JMT, 1993)
Tim Berne's Caos Totale – Nice View (JMT, 1994)
Christy Doran – Play the music of Jimi Hendrix (1994)
Harry Beckett – D.B. plays piano on song: 'Les Jardins du Casino' – Les Jardins du Casino (1995), Maxine (2010)
Bendik Hofseth – Colours (1997)
Søren Nørbo Trio – Debates (2005)
Marius Neset – Golden XPlosion (2011)
In 1997, he was awarded the Jazzpar Prize