Thinking About John Gilmore

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we see and hear him solo with Ra’s band on “’Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk, whom Gilmore had just claimed was superseded by Ra.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, click here. To hear Gilmore in a splendid series of choruses on “But Not For Me” in 1960, go 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.
(John Gilmore photo at top by Michael Wilderman,

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  1. brian turner says

    An excellent choice to ponder Doug. I especially enjoy the quartet date with Paul Bley from ’64, and Peacock and Motian in attendance.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      The Bley album is reissued on CD as Turning Point. It began life as a Savoy LP with the title Turn. In addition to Motian, the LP had two tracks with Billy Elgart, a drummer highly regarded among players and listeners on the outer edge of jazz. Elgart is also with Bley and bassist Peacock on this 1970 ECM album.

  2. says

    John Gilmore, a giant!

    Here he is, also with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, from the same concert with the pyramidal ride “The Egyptian.”

    Love that!

    My first encounter with John Gilmore was with Sun Ra, when they played in Cologne’s Stadtgarten ’round 1990, then being one of the hippest concert places. — It meanwhile became a very commercial spot.

    The 2nd meeting took place in one of Cologne’s finest jazz clubs, the “Metronom”, but via that splendid LP “Blowing In From Chicago”, very justifiably advertised here too. For me, this is one of the most swinging of all meetings of two tenors. And this means a lot, after you got possibly “spoiled” by Dexter & Wardell.

  3. John K says

    Thanks for this excellent post on one of the best blogs around! John Gilmore is a wonderful player. One of my favourite performances with Sun Ra is the epic blues “Thoughts Under a Dark Blue Light” from the Cymbals record released as part of the Great Lost Sun Ra Albums on Evidence. If you can stand the lo-fi sound quality he plays superbly on Music from Tomorrow’s World on Atavistic that features the Arkestra circa 1960/61. Away from Ra, as well, in the appearances with Bley, Blakey, Jordan Elmo Hope, Pete LaRoca and Andrew Hill, he is great (as is Art Davis) on The Artistry of Freddie Hubbard. Night Lights on Indiana Public Media did a nice Gilmore special a while back that’s still available at