John Gilmore was an innovative jazz tenor saxophone player who was noted for his progressive style, but was also able to play soulful ballads and beautiful melodies. Born in Missouri in 1931, his family later moved to Chicago, where he grew up. At the age of 14, he began playing clarinet. While a student at DuSable High School, he studied under Captain Walter Dyatt, as so many respected musicians had.
Gilmore served in the US Air Force from 1948 to 1952. Originally he was a clarinet soloist,
but during his time of service he changed over to tenor saxophone. After his discharge from the
service in 1952, Gilmore played with Earl “Fatha” Hines’ Orchestra. The Orchestra toured as
part of a road show with the Harlem Globetrotters.
In 1953, Gilmore became one of the first musicians to join pianist and bandleader Sun Ra in what would become Ra’s “Arkestra”. For over 40 years, Gilmore was one of the Arkestra’s most influential performers, playing on almost all of Ra’s albums. Gilmore highly respected Ra’s innovative use of harmony, which the sax player felt was a fitting but also a unique extension of bebop.
Sun Ra led a musicians’ commune in Philadelphia, where drugs and alcohol were forbidden. Ra demanded complete devotion to music, and Gilmore willingly obliged. The connection between the two musicians was so strong, musically and personally, that when Ra died in 1993, Gilmore took over leadership of the Arkestra.
Although best known for his collaborations with Sun Ra, Gilmore also contributed to the work of other musicians. In 1957, he and Clifford Jordan co-led a session for Blue Note Records that is considered a classic hard bop recording called, “Blowing In from Chicago”.
In 1964 and 1965 Gilmore did some notable work with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and he also played as a sideman on recordings with respected artists such as Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Andrew Hill and Pete LaRoca. Gilmore’s work featured both hard bop and free-form material. In addition to his tenor sax work, he sometimes played bass clarinet and percussion.
John Coltrane regarded Gilmore as a major influence and inspiration. During a show at Birdland in New York City, Gilmore met Coltrane, and Coltrane asked for some quick, impromptu lessons.
Because Gilmore played almost exclusively with Sun Ra's Arkestra, with occasional sidework with other performers, some jazz lovers feel he never reached the notoriety and influence he would have gained by going solo. However, Gilmore stated in interviews that he felt he could do no better than staying with Ra.
Gilmore died in August, 1995, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.