Courtesy of James "Blood" Ulmer



Having worked with Ornette Coleman, James Blood Ulmer, at least in my humble opinion, has proved all he needs to as a guitarist. As much as I dig Joe Morris, I can't imagine a Joe Morris without Ulmer. He is about as O.G. as it gets. Not bad for a guy who got his start in a Pittsburgh church choir. He sat down with the roadshow to talk about his days with Ornette, his wonderful Tales of Captain Black, and the progression of the music, as always, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER: I kind of started in church music, playing and singing in gospel group. That is how I started, joined the choir and on till I graduated from high school. I got out of high school and went to Pittsburgh and then I started playing with doo-wap groups. The group was on the corner singing. From there, I went from the doo-wap group to an organ trio.

FJ: When did you pick up the guitar?

JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER: I really started playing in a group around nine years old. My father started me off really early trying to play the guitar.

FJ: Was it alluring?

JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER: Not necessarily. I didn't think about that because it was just the only instrument that was in the house.

FJ: So it was a lack of options?

JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER: (Laughing) There was no options. It was the only instrument in the house, so I think I liked it.

FJ: You moved around quite a bit in your youth, was that a liability?

JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER: No, I kind of liked it because you didn't have to be in one place. I liked the idea of keep moving, keep modulating, going to different places at different times. I moved to New York in 1971.

FJ: What impression did New York make on a seasoned traveler?

JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER: Well, New York is a place that I've always thought that maybe I didn't have to come to because I started playing so early. I didn't know I was going to have to come here and live. I didn't necessarily think that New York was a place that I was ever going to wind up staying for thirty years. You get to New York, Fred, and you have this choice. New York is a different kind of place.

FJ: What makes New York so special?

JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER: Well, it seemed like it was something that you could do for yourself here. It just makes you feel more independent than dependent.

FJ: Let's touch on your collaborations with Ornette Coleman.

JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER: Well, I met Coleman in '72. Billy Higgins took me to his house. When I first got there, I had never really played and wasn't into playing really free music, playing, improvising totally from how you feel. I was very, very impressed by his style of playing and his concept that he was playing. The thing that he would tell me to play with him was much different than just being in a group playing changes and try to play the changes or even trying to play the blues or something like that. It was a very interesting thing, but I was already headed in that direction in one respect of just making my own music. I was working on playing my own music. In Detroit, I was working on my music and what I wanted to play. Some of the things that I was playing helped me out when I got to Coleman.

FJ: You played with Coleman during the late Seventies. I am curious as to why you did not just continue to play free.

JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER: Oh, that is a good question, Fred. That's a very, very good question. You see, what happened was when that movement came, it was a good period in the late Seventies. It was a good period when the whole music world was opening up to different things and everybody was ready for different music. They were searching, searching. Through that loft jazz period, a lot of people set up different things and different places that this kind of music, if you wanted to do it, you just asked people to play free music, there was actually places to experiment on that level with it. There were actually places all over Europe and places opening up all over America, places like that where you could play that music, so much that Columbia Records and all the major record companies started signing groups that were even in that free music kind of thing, in a rock way or in a jazz way or the blues way, whatever where they was taking it on the free side was getting played for major record companies. That Coleman guy got off Skies of America. A lot of things he was doing himself, he was doing with major record companies putting out this music. And then something happened. I think it was someone or a group of someones made a decision that this was going to stop because what happened was in Europe, all of these places closed and all of the places in America that had artists playing this music, they disappeared and it wasn't happening no more. For all the brothers that Coleman grouped together as being on the harmolodic movement and that whole harmolodic movement of music, but there are lots of musicians that I know personally that had to make that sacrifice to play that harmolodic music. But something happened and it was taken away. They took it away it seems like. It was forbidden all of the sudden. I never did stop anyway because what I was doing and what I started doing at that point was I took it from the first record I made called Are You Glad to be in America? and the three records that I did for Columbia, I took the vocal songs off of them and I started performing the vocal songs in Europe, so that was working in Europe. In America, I was still recording the Music Revelation Ensemble, which had about seven albums and I was still trying to work on that free music. I got these records out on the Music Revelation Ensemble and I have been doing those gigs, so I don't think I have been doing one thing over another, except in Europe where I was working on the blues a lot, but in America, I work on the harmolodic thing. I work on vocal songs with dialogue and then I got this group called Odyssey Band and I've made three records with them where we don't have no bass and this has to do with the different tuning of the guitar. You see, Fred, I am a guitar player. I'm not a horn player. You don't know no guitars playing free music. I mean, the closest guitarist that I know who was playing the guitar about as free as you could was, he died.

FJ: Sonny Sharrock.

JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER: Sonny Sharrock and me and Sonny were the only two people that I know that was trying to push that guitar into another light. The guitar ain't never been too excepted in too much music. It was like jazz and free music. You don't really talk about it, but you don't really have it. The guitar is kind of like an instrument that is forbidden, expect for a few people that have done a lot of work in trying to promote their instrument and trying to get it to be at concert level. Segovia had it at concert level on one hand, but I think of the guitar as not being in the industry of music. Nobody playing free is hiring guitars. Everybody that I played free with I had to hire myself, even Coleman. They never hired me. They don't want a guitar. And I played with David Murray and Julius Hemphill, all of the horn players, Sam Rivers, everybody that I know that played the horn that played free, I tried to play with them. I made a record with them, but still when they call somebody that plays that way, it is not a guitar. But I have been fighting it, Fred. I'm still playing free music.

FJ: Don't you think life would have been easier if you just played like Wes Montgomery?

JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER: (Laughing) Yeah, it would have been. But I made a promise to my friend, George Benson. I first met George Benson, he was a young guy and I was in Pittsburgh and I was just about seventeen and George is much younger than me. He was someone that was real young playing the shit out of the guitar. He had a pick. Boy, he used to play so much shit on the guitar that I would say, "Damn, when does he have time to practice this shit." He was so young and little. I couldn't figure out how he had time to work all this shit out, practice this shit, and play what he was playing. I told myself that one thing I would do is I am not going to go that route (laughing). I am not going in that direction. If this cat is playing like this when he is this young, and this cat was coming from the house and I played a little blues and church music, but I never heard nobody fiddling on the guitar like he was fiddling and he was picking it. I like Wes Montgomery though. He was one of my favorite guitar players. The guitar has such a hard time trying to play the lead on it.

FJ: Let's touch on Tales of Captain Black, just reissued by DIW.

JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER: I think that the style of that record and the concept of that music, I think that Coleman tried to carry the whole weight of it by himself. So I think because of that, that sound is not a personal thing. If it is not personal, it is going to be hard for someone to accept that. When there was bebop, they had bebop hats, bebop shoes, bebop restaurants, bebop girls, they had bebop to make the music, everything to make it. It created a whole thing with jazz. They had a whole thing that goes with it. Tales of Captain Black was definitely from harmolodic, free. Each one has their own voice, speaking equally. That was it. All of the components with that did not go with it yet, not until now. Now, you can get harmolodic in the telephone book probably.

FJ: Every family has a bad uncle that no one talks about or invites to family reunions. Does free music have the perception of being the bad uncle of jazz?

JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER: (Laughing) Right. I guess it is not as personal to them. People like music that they can dictate. They want to be in control of it. They want to say that I like this and I don't like this. Free music is not a music where you can say that I like this and I don't like that. It is something for you to absorb and be lifted to whatever heights you can lift to. A lot of music listeners don't listen to music that way. They want to be in control. They want to know who they are going to see and how it is going to sound before they get there and what they are going to be playing. With free music, the players don't know what they are going to play, so how are they going to inform the listener?

FJ: And the future?

JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER: I recorded an album with Rashied Ali, Reggie Workman, and John Hicks and I am hoping that KOCH puts it out. I am also producing a record.

FJ: And the beat goes on.

JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER: Yeah, I am going to play all of it. It never gets old because I keep updating it. You have to keep updating it. It is just like the computer, you have got to keep up to date.

Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and resents CNN not being a 24 hours news channel. Comments?  Email Fred.