Thinking About John Gilmore


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John Gilmore (1931-1995) was a tenor saxophonist highly regarded by leaders in a wide stylistic range. He worked with Earl Hines, Buster Smith, King Kolax, Miles Davis, B.B. King, and Charles Mingus, among many others. Gilmore was equally comfortable playing mainstream tenor with fellow Chicagoan Red Saunders and exploring the planets with Sun Ra. During his time with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in the first half of the 1960s, Gilmore's front-line partner was trumpeter Lee Morgan. Blakey, bassist Victor Sproles and pianist John Hicks were the rhythm section. Here, Gilmore is featured on a ballad introduced by host Humphrey Lyttleton in a 1964 BBC 4 broadcast.

For the last 30 years of his life, Gilmore was on the leading edge of the avant-garde as a pillar of the Sun Ra Arkestra. He attracted a following for solos that incorporated long stretches of upper register playing in the extreme falsetto range of the horn that led one internet commenter to observe, “I think the tea is ready." Still, his core of musicality had the power to lead John Coltrane to name Gilmore as a major influence. Here, Gilmore talks about why he devoted himself to Sun Ra's music. Then, we see and hear him solo with Ra's band on “'Round Midnight" by Thelonious Monk, whom Gilmore had just claimed was superseded by Ra.

Following Sun Ra's death in 1993, Gilmore became one of the band's leaders. If you are interested in hearing and seeing one of his altissimo episodes with Ra, go here. Marshall Allen, on alto saxophone, squeals first. Gilmore's solo is at 03:07. To hear Gilmore in a splendid series of choruses on “But Not For Me" in 1960, click here.

For all of his activity and regard by his colleagues, I have been able to find no evidence that Gilmore recorded as a leader, except for co-leader credit with Clifford Jordan for the classic 1957 Blue Note two-tenor album Blowing in From Chicago.

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This story appears courtesy of Rifftides by Doug Ramsey.
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