Guitarist, composer, and innovator James Blood Ulmer comes from that rich history of American roots music. Not only has he lived an interesting life, but all of Ulmer’s musical accomplishments have been of self-discovery. From playing gospel music as a child, to backing and playing with some of Rhythm and Blues‘ vocal greats, to playing jazz and rock, and now the blues, Ulmer’s progression has allowed him to become one of the country’s blazing musical pioneer’s.
But to truly understand James’s genius, one must know about his beginnings. Born February 2nd, 1942 in St. Matthews, South Carolina, his father got him started early in music. He sang in his father’s traveling gospel group and was exposed to singing at revivals and special church services. Ulmer’s very strict religious background forbid him to play or listen to secular music. Also, due to his family’s tight financial issues, he always wanted to play the saxophone but was given a guitar when he was a teen.
During his late teens into his late 20’s he moved to Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Detroit where he played and backed many Rhythm and Blues and funk bands. In fact, he was part of the house band at the famed 20 Grand, one of Detroit’s elite night clubs where many of the greatest soul acts played during the day. It was at the same club where another group would follow in Ulmer’s similar funk musical stylings, Parliament/Funkadelic, featuring George Clinton, Bernie Worrell, and Eddie Hazel.
In early 1971 after playing with legendary jazz organist Big John Patton, James moved to New York City where he played and recorded with saxophonist Joe Henderson, drummer Art Blakey, and drummer Rashied Ali. It was by a chance meeting through drummer Billy Higgins where he introduced him to Ornette Coleman. While playing with Coleman, Ulmer’s guitar playing changed as well as his whole approach to music. Coleman’s Harmolodic theory, which allows the musicians to play with a improvised and non tonal approach. With Ulmer’s style being more of the rock and blues tradition. Although he played with Coleman for almost ten years, he produced James’s first disc “Tales From Captain Black” which was released in 1978 on Columbia Records. The album catapulted his career and developed him on a national scope as an innovator as a guitarist as well as an accomplished vocalist.
It was his landmark “Blackrock” recording that is hailed by many, that put rock on the map again since the late guitarist Jimi Hendrix in the early 1970’s. “Blackrock” was so influential to many musicians of color from Prince, to Vernon Reid of Living Color, to other groups like Fishbone and Bad Brains. Ulmer’s guitar style mixed with funk, punk, soul, and blues allowed him play venues that weren’t receptive to people of color or those that played the rock genre. He opened the door for many blacks to play rock again, something earlier innovators of rock like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Charles Brown gave birth to and stylized on the genre.
From the gate, his music startled critics and fans because of many different musical styles and ensembles he's recorded with. The Music Revelation Ensemble was a hybrid of funk and free-form jazz that featured musicians such as Ronald Shannon Jackson, David Murray, Sam Rivers, Hamiet Bluiett, and Arthur Blythe. The group Odyssey, both he and violinist Charles Burnham and drummer Warren Benbow gave music fans a slice of the blues and avant-garde jazz to rave reviews.
Over the last decade, producer and guitarist Vernon Reid has produced three critically-acclaimed blues recordings on the late Joel Dorn’s Hyena label. His 2001 “Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions” was a direct blast and reunited longtime violinist and Ulmer sideman Charles Burnham. Recorded at the famed Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, Ulmer went back and rediscovered and recorded blues greats like Son House, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, and Otis Rush. His follow-up: “No Escape From The Blues: The Electric Lady Session