John Gilmore

John Gilmore (bottom right) with the Sun Ra Arkestra, 1955 (Sunny in light colored jacked behind Gilmore)

Sun Ra’s Science-Myth Arkestra swing out in some cool head gear.

A different John Gilmore than the last one I wrote about. This John Gilmore (b. Oct. 29, 1931, d. Aug. 29, 1995) was one of the premier tenor saxophonists in jazz for over thirty years, yet he played constantly in the shadow of Sun Ra whose band (or Arkestra, or Solar-Myth Arkestra, or Astro-Infinity Arkestra, or whatever variation of the name they used at any given time) he played with since 1953. Gilmore pretty much joined the group right out of highschool and was a staple of Sun Ra’s front line reed section for his entire recording career. In fact I know of only one album Gilmore cut without Ra- Blowin’ In From Chicago (Blue Note, 1957) on which Gilmore is co-leader with fellow tenor sax player Clifford Jordan, backed by the rhythm section of Horace Silver (piano), Curly Russell (bass) and Art Blakey (drums). Blowin’ In From Chicago is a great album. Gilmore, freed from the tight discipline of Ra’s band gets to let loose a bit. I guess it’s what is considered amongst lovers of sub-classifications as hard bop. Is there such a thing as soft bop? Never mind… here it is, Blowin’ In From Chicago: Status Quo, Bo-Till, Blue Lights, Billie’s Bounce, Evil Eye, Everywhere. The six selections show us what Gilmore sounded like just jamming, stretching out, groovin’ along with a dream rhythm section band behind him. It’s obvious that he could have been a big name in jazz had he pursued a solo career. Or he could chosen to play with almost any other band, surely Miles Davis would have hired him in a minute. Or made a killing doing studio work. Instead he stuck with Sun Ra, working for almost no money and suffering Ra’s rigid discipline, which meant it Sunny felt like calling a rehearsal at 3 AM to teach the band a new number he just wrote, the band would assemble and rehearse at 3 AM, for as long as Sun Ra felt like rehearsing. It takes a rare type of person who can dedicate such great talents to the vision of another, even if that other is from Saturn.
If the Sun Ra Arkestra was a sort of jazz cult, John Gilmore was Ra’s most ardent disciple, and greatest student. He made his best music in the context of the Arkestra, but I post this album because, a) It’s rare, it’s good, and it’s out of print. b) Few people know it exists. c) A friend asked. d) And (this is the important part)– I like it. As good as Blowin’ In From Chicago is, if you want to hear Gilmore’s best playing try starting with the Sun Ra albums like Jazz in Silhouette, El Is The Sound Of Joy, Atlantis, The Magic City, Super Sonic Jazz, The Saturn Singles Collection, or any of the other Saturn discs re-issued by Evidence (there’s at least 200 Sun Ra albums, nearly all of them good, and all very different from each other). And while you’re at it, the blaxplotation/sci-fi clssic film– Space Is The Place (1974), starring Sun Ra & his Arkestra is readily available on DVD and is like no other film I’ve ever seen.
John Gilmore’s tenor sax (he also played the occasional bass clarinet and various percussion instruments) was/is a remarkably flexible instrument. The music and story of Sun Ra is too big a subject for one blog entry, or even one book, although John Szwed’s Space Is The Place (Pantheon, 1997) is a good start. I wrote about Sun Ra’s rock’n’roll output in December of 2008 (the links have expired, you’ll just have to buy Norton Records three discs worth of Ra’s rock’n’roll, a wise investment). John Gilmore was the Arkestra’s featured soloist for over four decades and he could swing, play inside, outside, free, modular, straight, blues, and all of the above, often at the same time. When Sun Ra passed away in 1993, the leadership of the Arkestra passed to Gilmore who ran the band until his death two years later, unfortunately at that point his health and teeth were so bad that he couldn’t blow much sax, although he was an excellent band leader. When Gilmore died, alto player Marshall Allen took charge and still leads the group today which operates as sort of a Sun Ra repertory company. Meanwhile, for you who are already hip to the alternate universe that was/is the music of Sun Ra, John Gilmore’s one session away from the Arkestra- Blowin’ In From Chicago is an interesting record, as well as plain old good listening. Like all Blue Note albums of that era, it’s well recorded, uses the finest musicians, and has that Blue Note vibe, that late night, smokey night club feel of what 52nd St. must have been like in its heyday. There’s not much jazz like that around these days and it’s a great loss. I was lucky enough to have been able to see the Sun Ra Arkestra on a regular basis, they seemed to play New York at least once a month for years, and every show I saw was different. Sometimes they just beat on tom toms, shook rattles and chanted. Other times they played the vintage swing charts of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, other times they played long, free style jams, or entire sets of blues, classic swing or Disney tunes. Often they just made a lot of noise. A glorious noise at that. But they were always well dressed, in spangled robes, turbans, moo-moos, etc. And they played their asses off. Rest assured, there will never be another band like that again Well, at least they were well documented.
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