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George Edward Tait

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     He never won a Grammy, but now a galaxy mourns him – his name a whispered word in the universe.  But it is Shango, the god of thunder, who is whispering.  John Gilmore.  In the upper circle of musical consciousness, Gilmore was a giant among giants – one of the all-time titans of the tenor saxophone.  With his genius, he was the mentor who helped the good become great and the great become greater.  With his humility, he sacrificed the spotlight of stardom for the sunlight of sound.  Sun Ra’s music was his elixir of existence: a combination of an aesthetic of love and the articulation of life.

     Gilmore joined Sun Ra in 1953 before the Myth-Science Arkestra existed.  It was a trio then.  After Gilmore assisted in establishing the Arkestra, he remained with it for life.

In fact, it musically and literally became his life.  When Sun Ra died in 1993, Gilmore directed the Arkestra.  Even after his health deteriorated, he directed and led the Arkestra from his sick bed.  The engagement at S.O.B.s was the final one that Gilmore booked.  He died on August 20th at 63 years of age, after spending four decades as Sun Ra’s most devout, disciplined, and dynamic disciple. 

     Without exception or reservation, the members of Sun Ra’s Myth-Science Arkestra hold John Gilmore in the highest regard.  Exclusive comments on his contribution ranged from respect to reverence. 

     Marshall Allen (alto saxophone and, now, music director) visibly at a loss for words, managed to state, “I’m really speechless.  Part of me went.  He was so important to us.  He was my friend first, for 35 years.  We miss him.  The records and tapes through the years prove how valuable he was.”  Charles Davis (baritone saxophone) expressed how Gilmore had been one of his mentors even before he began working with Sun Ra.  Dick Griffin (trombone) stated, “He had a very original sound.  And so many people were influenced: musicians that made good careers and that have a lot of recognition in the business borrowed or listened or took some of his influence.”

      Billy Bang (violin) asserted that Gilmore was always incredible and that he habitually picked his brain for knowledge.  Virgil Jones (trumpet) attested that Gilmore was “a beautiful guy; a great musician.”  Noel Scott (alto and baritone saxophones) summarized, “First of all, John Gilmore was the most humble person I ever met in my life, to be such an incredible giant, to have such an in-depth understanding of Sun Ra’s musical concept, to be such an incredibly brilliant thematic improviser.  His range of knowledge of the saxophone tradition, of the jazz tradition as classic African-American music, was unparalleled.  John could sound like Coleman Hawkins one minute, Don Byas another, Prez another, himself – and then he would play ideas which Coltrane found so enchanting and later on claimed for his own.  John was a very giving individual and always had something encouraging to say.  I never heard him speak ill of anyone.

     Noel Scott continued, “One thing I would like to stress musically about the profundity of John Gilmore is that he had the gift, knowledge, and experience to be able to play the basic elements of improvisation and through the rhythmic impetus play a triad, and it would be the hippest triad you ever heard in your life.  His pianissimos were felt throughout the stage.  He could whisper on a horn and it would vibrate through the soles of your feet and the seat of your chair.  John was, outside of Sun Ra, the most disciplined person I ever knew.”

     The memorial concert commenced with Sun Ra’s Arkestra surfacing from somewhere beneath the street level club: a rising synergistic sun-force attired in futuristic metallic garb and showered with multi-colored light rays.  They approached the stage, moving at a dirge tempo, chanting in a dirge tone.  “Eternal sea of darkness, where there is no sun, light the way.”  On stage, there were the prophets of truth playing the soundtrack of time.  You listened by looking through high-powered sunoculars with solarscopic lenses.

     Their music encompassed the entire evolution of jazz, easily moving from era to era, sometimes overlapping, sometimes combining, but always maintaining excitement and excellence.  There was the spirit of Buhania, regal in its revelry, with Blakey’s patented backbeat reflecting gospel intensity.  There was Ellington enunciating in an East St. Luis accent while conversing with Cootie Williams.  And there was Miles floating through on a deep woodwind, feet barely torching the stage, sporting solar shades and soft bop.

     Sun Ra’s Myth-Science Arkestra, however, maintained its own identity.  No matter how varied the sounds, the music bore the stamp of the band and the signature of the individual: Marshall Allen was electricity without wires; Noel Scott was raw and roaring in his resplendence; Billy Bang was a scorch song with strings, a story of strength; Dick Griffin defined gutbucket grace; Charles Davis epitomized a sophisticated gentleman in seasoned sound; the trumpet of Ahmed Abdullah was consistently vibrant and inventive; Al Evans’ trumpet was bold and brilliant brass on fire, while Virgil Jones was warm, wise, and witty.  The baritone sax of Kenny Williams spoke in fluent exuberance.  Bruce Edwards’ guitar was a master key to swing city; Damon Choice’s vibraharp created the connective tissue of cohesiveness, methodical and melodic; the stalwart bass of John Ore guaranteed stability;  Buster Smith and a percussion section provided power and pulse.  Although the specific sound of John Gilmore was in absentia, his spirit was   overwhelmingly pervasive.  The SRO, continuously cheering crowd produced the effect of a sustained standing ovation throughout the entire length of the concert.

     In addition, the band’s management also voiced acknowledgement of Gilmore’s greatness.  Spencer R. Weston declared, “John was one of the most disciplined, one of the most creative and dedicated people I’ve seen in any art form.”