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Meet a Musician: James Gilmore learned about jazz by trading mixtapes with his grandfather

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When he was a teenager, James Gilmore would receive mixtapes from his grandfather.

“My grandfather was really into jazz,” he said. “He would send tapes with Billie Holiday and Lester Young, and I would trade mixtapes with him.”

Gilmore, who plays jazz guitar, cites as influences many of those artists to whom his grandfather introduced him.

Today, he leads a self-titled trio that includes bassist Butler Knowles and drummer Kassem Williams. The group released its debut album, “Decorating Time” earlier this year.

In a recent interview, Gilmore spoke about studying philosophy, cutting his musical teeth at a jam session in Durham, and singing country music at karaoke night.

How did you get interested in music?

I’m from Maine originally, Mount Desert Island. I became interested in music in high school, played in groups through high school. I went to summer programs when I was younger, and I’ve taken lessons but never went to music school. I basically just learned through a lot of practice and a lot of study and listening to records.

I’ve been in North Carolina since 2013, and music became my main thing that I did when I came here.

I went to St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., studied philosophy, and I went on to get a Ph.D. in philosophy from Johns Hopkins. There was some music in my life during that time, but it wasn’t my main focus.

What sort of career were you hoping to get into?

Often when you go through an academic philosophy program, the career path is usually that you’re going to be a professor. Sometimes there’s other things you can do, like working in the legal profession or for nonprofits. But I wanted to be a philosophy professor. By the time I was done with the Ph.D., though, I didn’t as much. And also the job market was really tough. So, I followed this girl I was dating to North Carolina.

And after I moved here, there was a jam session at a place called Beyu Caffe (in Durham). The guy who ran that jam session was a drummer from Chicago — Kobie Watkins — who’s played with Sonny Rollins and Bobby Broom. And there were some really great people who would show up and play. It was amazing, and I had never played with people that good. It was a humbling experience. But I started to hustle and get my own gigs. When I started hanging around musicians, it was like, “This is what I want to do.”

Who are some of your musical influences?

My main influences would be Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane. I could go on and on.

Specifically on guitar, when I was in my early teens, my absolute favorite — and I’m not saying this because he lives in Greensboro — was Charlie Hunter. And my favorite record was “Ready ... Set ... Shango!” which he released in 1993.

And, as I sort of progressed on the guitar, there was John McLaughlin, Grant Green, George Benson, Pat Metheny.

Basically my biggest musical heroes are people who aren’t doing it “the right way.” Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and Thelonious Monk didn’t play “the right licks” or “right notes.” They invented their own vocabulary, which was an interpretation of what their idols had played.

How would you describe your music?

It uses idioms from the Black American musical tradition. When I write, I usually begin with a melody, and then I write a bass part. And I’m thinking about the drums, the texture and feel of the drums and the time.

How would you describe your creative process?

I would say that I don’t know that I have a process. The reason I make music is because I hear stuff in my head that I want to bring into the world. It’s in there, it’s coming to me from wherever. It can come from stuff I listen to, from my life, from the way I feel, from whatever. It’s in there, and I want to make it real. The process involves sitting for a long time and humming and playing and reworking. It’s hard to even call it a process.

If you could open a show for any artist, who would it be and why?

Actually, a guy who opened for me at my CD release, (jazz musician) Tatsuya Nakatani. Also my friends (jazz musicians) Ned Ferm and Maria Faust. Or (Greensboro-based guitarist) Eugene Chadbourne. Someone who has a very unique and spicy and special thing going on.

Do you ever sing karaoke or sing in the shower, and, if so, what do you sing?

Absolutely. I do sing karaoke. My go-to these days is Top 40 country. I sing a lot in my car, and I absolutely love Top 40 country love ballads.

I like the storytelling, and country is always about the simple stuff — life, love and heartache, all that good stuff.

Do you have a favorite song or piece that you like to perform?

Probably “I’ll Be Seeing You” or “The Man I Love.” I love the words, and I’m always hearing the words when I play them. They’re both songs that Billie Holiday made famous, and I’m always hearing her singing when I play them.

What’s the funniest or weirdest thing that has ever happened at one of your shows?

I was playing for a local blues artist, who shall remain nameless, at an establishment, which will remain nameless, and literally within seconds of me walking in, somebody got punched in the face and staggered out with blood pouring down their shirt.

What’s next for you?

I’m always writing new music. I just released the debut record by my trio called “Decorating Time.” And I’m always looking for performance opportunities to connect with a larger audience. I’m applying for grants. And I’m hoping to do a tour of towns in North and South Carolina, where heroes of mine were born — towns that are birthplaces of famous figures in Black American music.

— As told to Robert C. Lopez,


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