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John Gilmore: 1931-1995
John Gilmore
Tenor saxophone, clarinet

Born: September 28, 1931 in Summit, Missouri
Died: August 19, 1995 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Self-Effacing Disciple of Sun Ra

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1995


John Gilmore was born in Missouri, but his family moved to Chicago when he was three years old. He took up the clarinet at the age of 14, and began to perform on both that instrument and tenor saxophone while serving in the USAF from 1948-1951.

He toured America with Earl "Fatha" Hines in 1952, providing musical accompaniment to the famous Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. In 1953, he formed the association which was to dominate his musical life when he joined a trio led by the extraordinary pianist and band-leader, Sun Ra, who died in 1993.

Gilmore devoted himself to both the music and the collective lifestyle which Sun Ra evolved over four decades, punctuated only by brief spells working with other leaders, most notably when he replaced Wayne Shorter in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1964-65.

He also recorded with a variety of notable musicans, including a fine Blue Note session co-led with Clifford Jordan, Blowing In From Chicago (1957), Freddie Hubbard, the underated Elmo Hope, McCoy Tyner, Paul Bley, his old school friend Andrew Hill, and Chick Corea, and led his own groups on occasional record dates.

For the most part, though, Gilmore was one of the principal channels through which Sun Ra filtered his idiosyncratic genius. Along with other long-serving interpreters like alto saxophonist Marshall Allen and a host of more temporary members, Gilmore became a crucial conduit as well as a creative stimulant to some of the most exciting contemporary music in America.

Gilmore was part of a core unit which lived in communal fashion in Philadelphia. Sun Ra imposed strict discipline on his musicians, with drugs and alcohol forbidden, and total dedication to the music demanded, and willingly given.

His ensembles, which went under the basic name of the Arkestra, with more colourful variations like the Astro-Infinity Arkestra, the Blue Universe Arkestra and the Year 2000 Myth Science Arkestra, combined both visual and musical dimensions in realising his interstellar visions.

Gilmore, a gifted saxophonist who gave John Coltrane lessons and was an important but still undervalued influence on the generation of saxophonists who emerged in the 1960s avant-garde, would almost certainly have enjoyed a far higher profile had he not dedicated himself so self-effacingly to Sun Ra's vision, but his contribution to that music is itself a fitting memorial.

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