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.

Follow Ups To Past Posts…

A Good Spot For A Gratuitous Photo Of Jane Birkin Who Is Not Mentioned In This Posting

Some follow ups to past Houndblog postings: Last December was a posting about Sun Ra’s rock’n’roll output, well my pals over at Norton Records have just released three volumes of the stuff, most of not on the Evidence Saturn 45’s box. The first is Rocket Ship Rock which features the most incredible Yochanan, including his masterpiece Hot Skillet Mama b/w Muck Muck as well as the previously unheard Rocket Ship Rock and more. Also represented are Lacy Gibson’s insane verion of I Am Gonna Unmask The Batman, and Ebah’s un-issued rendition of the same, and the ultra rare Pink Clouds disc Space Stroll by Don Dean. The second two volumes Interplanetary Melodies (Doo Wop From Saturn Beyond Vol. 1) and The Second Stop Os Jupiter (Doo Wop From Saturn and Beyond Vol. 2) have classics by the Cosmic Rays and Juanita Rogers, and lots of recently unearthed (or un-Saturned) rehearsal tapes from the Nu Sounds, the Qualities, Crystals (Sun Ra does Don & Dewey!) and Sunny his bad self with Stuff Like That and Tony’s Wife. Great liner notes by Miriam Linna and Michael D. Anderson make these essential.

Andre Williams was the subject of a posting last Nov. and earlier this month, his first novel (!)
Sweets and Other Stories (Kicks Books) is out, I just read it, and it’s a doozie. If you like Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim, Robert Deane Pharr, Herbert Simmons and that sort of ultra realistic ghetto fiction, than this is for you. He’ll be doing a reading from it in Chicago on November 14th, at Phyllis Musical Inn, 1800 West Division St., 8 PM. While on the subject of Mr. Rhythm, his version of the Stones “The Spider & The Fly”, issued by Norton as part of their ongoing Stones’ cover 45’s series is one of his best recordings in years. My other favorites in the series are the Church Keys’ “Who Driving Your Plane” (best Stones b-side ever), and the Dirt Bombs’ No Expectations. The entire series is worth owning.
While you’re over at the Norton site the two volumes of early Kim Fowley productions– One Man’s Garbage (Lost Treasures From The Vaults 1959-69) Vol. 1 and ...Is Another Man’s Gold (Lost Treasures From The Vaults 1959-69) are indispensable, containing, just as described some of the best and worst from the king of the Hollywood hustlers. Great notes by the man himself (as a non-drug user, he has an incredible memory, the Library Of Congress should sit him down like they did Jelly Roll Morton to get an entire oral history of the L.A. scene from Kip Tyler & the Flips to Hanson, since Fowley saw it all). Both discs come in deluxe fold-out sleeves. It’s nice to have some actual new records to play around the house again.
In May, I wrote about John Gilmore’s eye popping Laid Bare, well Gilmore has a new novel out, his second– Crazy Streak (Scapegoat Publishing). It’s sort of a white trash take on the Lolita theme set in the part of Southern California that sees more trailers than limos, and Gilmore captures that world with an unflinching eye. Gilmore is his own genre, and this book is well worth searching out.
Last April I wrote about William Lindsay Gresham, his classic noir novel Nightmare Alley is being re-issued in the spring with a forward by, but of course, Nick Tosches. There’s also a musical with book and songs by Jonathan Brielle, directed by Gilbert Cates that will open at the Geffen Playhouse in L.A. on April 13 and run until May 23 (my birthday). I’d like to see
an amusement park ride based on Nightmare Alley myself. And perhaps a movie version of Monster Midway. There’s other doings in the world of Gresham but I’m not sure if I can divulge the info yet or not, keep an eye on this space.
Bill Wyman turned 73 last week, he’s still on tour and he’s still ugly.
With the demise of The Wire and The Shield (best cop shows ever), TV’s been pretty lame as of late, the best show on right now is in an awful time slot (Sunday at Midnight, AMC) and not available on In Demand, but Breaking Bad, the best TV drama about Meth chefs ever, is worth setting your Tivo/DVR/whatever your cable company calls it. It’s nice to see Bob Odenkirk revive the character he played on the Larry Sanders Show– Stevie the agent, this time as a sleazy drug lawyer, also named Stevie.
I love reference books, especially slang dictionaries, and Stephen Calt, whose previous books were biographies of Charlie Patton and Skip James (both great and both sadly out of print, the latter is one of the most telling books ever written about “the blues” and it’s not a pretty picture) has put together Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary (University Of Illinois Press, 2009). If you need to know what “Polack town”,”bug juice”, and to “dust one’s broom” mean, this is the book to find it in.

Rockin’ With Sun (Ra)





Sun Ra (Herman Poole Blount, b. May 22, 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama according to his birth certificate, Le Sony’r Ra born on Saturn according to his passport) was one of the most prolific and significant jazz musicians of the 20th century. And one of the best dressed. He recorded hundreds of LP’s, led one of the finest bands in the world for four decades, composed and arranged countless tunes. He was probably one of the few jazz musicians who could play “inside” and “outside” (ie straight or free-form) at the same time.
For those wanting more info on Sun Ra, John F. Szwed’s Space Is The Place: The Lives and Times Of Sun Ra (Pantheon Books, 1997) is essential reading. In fact it’s essential reading for anyone interested in jazz or just singular oddballs of the American variety. It’s safe to say we’ll not see the likes of Sun Ra again. Szwed’s study is a good read but it’s just the beginning and the study of Ra’s career could fill several more volumes easily.
But I’m not the guy for that job, not being much of a jazz critic or historian, the subject of today’s blog is Sun Ra’s rock’n’roll output. For those who didn’t know, Sun Ra was responsible for some truly unique rock’n’roll records. Although they represent a minuscule portion of his recorded output they’re all interesting records, and a couple of ’em are downright masterpieces.

Sun Ra’s first stab at rock’n’roll was issued on Ra’s own Saturn label in 1955 by the Cosmic Rays. In classic doo wop 45 fashion one side was a ballad– “Dreaming” and the other an upbeat near rocker– “Daddy Gonna Tell You No Lie“. Both sides have a pronounced mambo beat and feature lead singer Calvin Barron along with three unknown harmony singers. Sun plays piano, the sides were recorded in Chicago. When collectors kept asking Sunny to re-issue it he couldn’t find the master tape so instead issued an a cappella version which was recorded in his living room while rehearsing the group for their studio debut.
A very strange doo-wop recorded was issued under the name of Juanita Rogers & Lynn Hollings with Mr. V’s Five Joys on the Pink Clouds label in 1958 and is most certainly Sun Ra’s doing. The a-side–“Teenager’s Letter Of Promises” is an oddball disc by any standard, even Sun Ra’s. Juanita Rogers is the Frankie Lymon like lead vocal, Lynn Hollings is doing the strange narration.
Speaking of strange, Yochanan (The Space Age Vocalist) was a Chicago street character that Ra befriended. Yochanan appeared in local nightclubs and on Maxwell Street where he was booked as the Man From Outer Space, the Man From Mars and the Muck Muck Man. He claimed to be from the Sun and appeared decked out in turban (always a good look for a R&R singer), sandals, robes, etc. His performances were both eccentric and wild and as quoted on Szwed’s book, one Hattie Randolph remembers catching his shtick in a nightclub in Kokomo, Indiana–“When he started his act and began leaping over the tables, one woman jumped up and shouted, ‘He’s possessed’! and ran out of the club”. One listen to his first single and it’s easy to believe–
Hot Skillet Momma” b/w “Muck Muck (Matt Matt)” attributed to Yochanan (The Space Age Vocalist) is one of the greatest rock’n’roll records I’ve ever heard. It makes Screamin’ Jay Hawkins sound like Johnny Mathis. The world was not ready for Yochanan in 1957 when this disc was issued, and it’s probably still not ready. Sun Ra however believed in Yochanan enough to issue another single two years later– “I’m The One From The Sun” b/w “Message To Earthmen“, not quite as wild but still a great record. Saturn issued two outtakes in 1968 when “The Sun Man Speaks” was coupled with an alternate version of “Message To Earthmen“.
Not really a rock’n’roll record (this one truly defies classification) is this 1974 recording “I’m Gonna Unmask The Batman” by Sun Ra and his Astro-Galactic Infinity Arkestra. Sunny seemed to have a thing for Batman as he along with a few members of the Arkestra and a couple of guys from the Blues Project cut a Batman TV theme budget LP in ’66 which can be found here. Not great but interesting in a cheesy sort of way.
More on the rhythm and blues side is this 1958 Saturn 45– “Hours After” (actually a version of Erskine Hawkins’ “After Hours”) b/w “Great Balls Of Fire” (not the Jerry Lee Lewis hit) which shows the Arkestra at their bluesiest. This one seems like an attempt to garn some jukebox play around Chicago where the band was based at the time. Also, it’s a rare example of Sun Ra recording with a guitarist, in this case Sam Thomas.
     My buddy Junie Booth played bass with the Sun Ra Arkestra for many years, he told me when they went to Birmingham, Alabama for Sunny to be presented with the key to the city, midway during the ceremony Sunny turned to him and said-“I hate this fuckin’ town, that’s why I always told people I was from Saturn”.
ADDENDUM TO YESTERDAY’S POST: I forgot to mention all of the above 45s and more are available on the 2 CD set Sun Ra: The Singles (Evidence ECD22164-2).  It’s 49 tunes span three decades and include all the issued Saturn 45’s and some alternate takes. Evidence also has fifteen Cd’s of Sun Ra Saturn material covering  21 + LP’s, many of which are practically impossible to find.

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