James Blood Ulmer: A matrix of American black music
His hands are big - perfect for ripping blues notes out of guitar necks. His fingers are adroit - ideal for plucking tricky jazz chords out of the air. His voice is thunderous - just right to tell the world about pain, love, injustice and the raw side of the American dream. “I’ve developed enough to go where I want to go - tonight,” the 64-year-old guitar virtuoso says. As a child growing up in small town South Carolina, he started with gospel. In Pittsburgh, he got into the doo-wop thing. In Detroit, it was jazz. In New York, he became the voice and touch of “harmolodic,” the free jazz style associated with Ornette Coleman. Through it all, the blues rumbled deep and constant through Ulmer, a Grammy Award nominee whose music has been influential albeit not mainstream.
“I’m doing what I’ve learned to do for all these 50 years that I’ve been playing music,” Ulmer says. “To perform in any style of black music in America at any given time, any time day or night, at will, whatever you want.” His latest work, last year’s “No Escape From The Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions,” is a meditative tribute to blues standards recorded in the New York studio founded by Jimi Hendrix. You name it, Ulmer can do it. “I can’t put him in a category because he goes all over: He plays blues, he plays funk, he plays jazz,” said G Calvin Weston, a percussionist and a longtime associate of Ulmer. With such a devotion to black music, Ulmer is a music missionary preaching the need to keep it alive. “I talk to musicians constantly about how we have to help preserve American music in its natural form, especially music that black people have been responsible for,” he said. “It’s dying out.” Keeping true to the roots of American music is of particular importance to blacks, said Ulmer, whose songs bleed with indictments against American society and the legacy of slavery.
“(Music) helped black people to remember and to keep up with their past since it was snatched from them and taken. And the art is the only thing that connect them with their past and their person.” The music he’s talking about is an art form - not a hit tune on a jukebox, not a chart-topping sing-along.
This dedication has left him a cult figure, a footnote in mainstream American tastes. Ulmer’s had his success - from performing with the doo-wop band Del Viking to developing the harmolodic style with jazz saxophonist Coleman in the 1970s. But he’s chosen a deliberate, quasi-religious path. There was no master plan: For Ulmer, when it mattered, music paid the rent. In his teens, he and his family moved into the three-story house of his mother’s cousin in Pittsburgh from St Matthews, South Carolina “And after the summertime come, she had us all have a good talk. We was all running around, playing around, doing nothing; just having fun, enjoying being away from home. And she said, about September come when school was about to start, she said: ‘Alright, you guys got to get a job and pay rent,”’ he recalled. “I said: ‘Well, how much is your rent?’ She said, ‘Six dollars a week.’ And I said, ‘Well if I can get six dollars a week without getting a job, would that be alright?’ She said, ‘As long as you don’t steal it.”’
He snapped his fingers: “And I started being a musician - then.” There was music before Pittsburgh. In St Matthews, his father, who was a highway department foreman and Baptist deacon, had Ulmer in the quartet he managed - The Southern Sons. “I didn’t think of what I was doing was something I was going to do for a livelihood or something to be a musician, I didn’t even know what that was really. I found that out after I went to Pittsburgh - about playing music. I thought playing music was some kind of sacred thing; had something to do with ‘church’ and ‘God,”’ he said. “I usually do things like I want to do. When I want to do something, I do. When I don’t want to do something, I don’t do it. I’m still in that state; I never was in a position all of my life to have to do something, yet.”