Remembering June Tyson and John Gilmore

Photograph © Jörg Becker.

June Tyson….. My Big Sister

I first saw June Tyson during a Sun Ra concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre in 1978. Back then we didn’t say Sun Ra and his Arkestra….we just said SUN RA …………because it was all about Sun Ra …his message, his music, his outer worldly persona, his rap. His dress. In any was a little different for me as I was so enamoured with the music of the Arkestra as per his multiplicity of iconic recordings.

So I actually came to examine the band and imagine the possibility of my own participation. And in fact was astonished, amazed and entranced by the larger than life presentation and performance of Sun Ra He clearly embodied everything I had heard, studied and imagined of the magnificence of the great Pharaohs of ancient Egypt.

Thusly I was totally unprepared for the visage of Nefertiti which appeared and performed as Sun Ra spiritual consort/confidante/acolyte…………… Cosmic Diva………….singer/dancer/artist and tone scientist…………June Tyson…..who would become as an elder sister to yours truly.

Seeing, hearing and experiencing the stage performance of Sunny……….with June at his side. Echoing and emphasising his declaratives. Then June would sing……. in the voice of the angels who would visit this planet. This experience was truly THE validation of works codified by such scholars as Dr.Ben Jochanannon who researched and documented the truth of the African identity of the Great pharaohs of Egypt who built the pyramids great cities creating the civilisation which gave birth to modern medicine, mathematics, theosophy, and a dozen other disciplines claimed by the Greeks, Romans and societies of Western Europe.

Of course I fell in love with her as did all of the members of the Arkestra…but this deep love was a brotherly love of profound respect and admiration.

The day after my audition by Sun Ra at the behest of Craig Harris and the hospitality of Warren Smiths Studio WIS on 21st in NYC I found myself recording with Sunny at variety Arts recording studio on W 42nd St where Sunny was maintaining a yearlong residency of recording.

June, Cheryl Banks, Michael Ray and Kenny Williams were there as Michael directed the overdubs for the vocals on the Omniverse and UFO recordings During the breaks June and would give me some insights to the dos and don’ts of the Arkestra as well as little hints on how I could understand Sun Ra’s instructions, compositional style and creeds.

Being a student of the Harlem renaissance and June being Harlemite we found ourselves getting long quite well. I was impressed with her partnership with then Arkestra manager/sound/light man Richard Wilkenson they functioned in tandem as Sun Ra’s aides sharing a deep friendship, love and respect for Mr. Ra

Current Arkestra Director Marshall Allen and long time baritonist Danny Ray Thompson both recall June singing in local Harlem nightclubs when she was introduced to Sun Ra. He started rehearsing with her at a music studio located in the Harlem Y(MCA) on 135 St. then having her attend Arkestra rehearsals at his apt on East 3rd street. Sunny immersed June in his poetry some of which she would recite or sing with the arkestra. Her participation in Sun Ra’s marathon sessions at NY legendary Slugs nightclub in New York’s Lower East side, gave birth to her famed renditions of ‘Space is the Place’, Somebody Elses idea and the vocal version of the Ra/Dobson masterpiece…. Enlightenment.

The dramatic tandem vocal interplay between Sun Ra and June was truly symbiotic.

June belonged to a small group I have dubbed the ‘true believers’

One must understand that first of all Sun Ra was on a divine mission. The term quoted by the Blues Brothers…… ‘We’re on a mission from God’ was actually Sun Ra’s creed……….. ‘Im on a mission from the Creator’.

This mission was 24/7 especially as he rarely slept. His ‘equations’, as he referred to his wondrous cosmology; embraced a .scholastic knowledge which exceeded the content of several PhDs in subjects from numerology, theosophy, metaphysics, theology, divinity, history and ethnomusicology to name a few. His ‘discipline demanded constant study and analysis of world and outer worldly events both sociologically and scientifically.

While the majority of members donned the arkestra garb and espoused Sun Ra’s vision when ‘in Place’…. The social dynamics of their day to day living (when away from Sun Ra) usually involved more earthly pursuits and endeavours……except for John Gilmore who lived a hermits life totally devoted to the practice of his instruments; James Jackson who looked upon Sunny as God….and June Tyson who incorporated Sun Ra’s exponents into every aspect of her life.

Whether it was teaching arts and crafts at a local senior citizen centre in Harlem or offering counsel to errant arkestra members who would seek her out after burning themselves out in extracurricular activities. Yes, June was a true believer She was our Mother Goddess. Yet again, June was very down to earth and could rap, laugh and hang with the cats as a member of the gang,

One of my fondest memories of June; is how when we were traveling on long road trips and there was need for quiet , jovial activity to lighten the long journey, usually in cramped vehicles……………. June would initiate the alpha word game………..we would start with A and each person present would in turn name a word that started with A. This would go around the group till we all ran out of words that stated with A…………then we would go on to words that started with the letter B………….lightly arguing whether butterfly and buttercup counted as two different words or not………..this would go on and on but we would get tired by the time we got to j or K and abandon the game for a while……..till the next road trip.

. Many times in my own life June would offer me counsel…….always bringing Sun Ra’s principles into the conversation to clarify her points of advice, admonishment or information in general.

Junes apartment on 131 St was the Arkestras New York home. When we would play NY, the Philadelphia crew would bunk up in Junes crib even sleeping in the kitchen. The was always a hot meal and a place to rest at Junes. With the music of Sun Ra, Thelonius Monk, Barry Harris, Charlie Parker and other bebop legends played from the extensive collection of tapes and recordings made by Richard Wilkenson. Arkestra members in town were always welcome to drop by and her daughters Gia and Shawn were our extended family as well.

Gia and Shawn accompanied June on numerous several tours with the Arkestra perhaps being principal amongst the family members of arkestra personnel who were in the orbit of Sun Ra.

When I brought my then future wife, Sharon….. into the Arkestra as a dancer, June welcomed her as a sister and friend.

Sun Ra’s faith in June lead him to make her band manager for a time….an extremely tiresome job as again Sun Ra did not sleep so essential arkestra personnel were literally on call… they could be summoned at anytime day or night. Sun Ra could be uncompromising therefore the manager was often left to smooth out the frustrations of hungry band members or promoters who had to deal with 25 band members instead of the contracted 15 ……………etc. I remember June handling her tasks with dignity and respect and no swollen head or inflated ego that would happen with some who were so chosen.

June was committed to being in the service of the Ra.

When Sun Ra bought her a violin and told her to it…she did as told. June represented all of the majesty, eloquence and regal splendour which has made the Black woman an entity of worship, adoration and desire the world over for centuries.

June belonged to a special list of Black women which would include Abbey Lincoln, Grace Jones, Iman, Serena and Venus Williams, Tina Turner, Michelle Obama, Condelezza Rice, Nina Simone, Josephine Baker, Naomi Cambell. Diana Ross, and influenced such young divas as Erica Badu, Mary J. Blige, and Alisha Keys.

KNOEL SCOTT March 6, 2017 London

John Gilmore, Morton Street 1979 Photograph © Val Wilmer.


John Gilmore was born in Mississippi………..amongst his peers also born in Mississippi are Charles Davis and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. John was raised in Chicago, and began plying the clarinet at 14 years of age. John attended the reknown Du Sable High School…….joining an incredible list of Jazz greats who studied at Du Sable and were nurtured under the tutelage of Captain Water Dyett., the legendary music educator who taught there for 30 years.

The list of Captain Dyetts students reads like a who’s who of jazz greats including such iconic Jazz masters as Nat King Cole, Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, Pat Patrick, Sarah Vaughn, Von Freeman, and Dinah Washington; just to name a few.

John’s classmate Pat Patrick was already rehearsing regularly and playing gigs with then Sonny Blount AKA Sonny Lee (who would evolve into Sun Ra) while still a student a Du Sable.

After graduating from Du Sable John went and joined the United States Air force as a clarinettist fro 1948 to 1953.

Returning to Chicago John began playing the Tenor saxophone and quickly started to build quite a reputation around Chicago as a swinging bopping player. In no time John was playing with the great pianist Earl ‘Fatha ‘Hines

Then one day in 1953 Pat couldn’t make a Ra rehearsal and sent John Gilmore.

This meeting with Sun Ra was to change Gilmores life. On one hand, Sun Ra had found someone whose interpretation of his material was exactly in the intended spirit of the work.

Someone with discipline and loyalty who was in search for an alter-destiny an approach to living beyond the materialistic approach and hedonistic lifestyles adopted by many a creative artist in Western society.

Someone who recognized and celebrated the existence of Sun Ra as an emissary from the beings of worlds beyond………a living reincarnation of the great Pharaonic royalty of Ancient Egypt who descended from Nubia.

The land of Blacks. Forced into exile by the Romans then captured and sold as slaves out of West Africa…..these descendants of the Ancient Egyptians who built the White House, finished the designs for the District of Columbia, provided the labor of the slave trade which provided the foundation of the economic institutions of the United States .and created Jazz.

In Sun Ra, John found a teacher, mentor and friend whose knowledge ,skills and creativity were filled with consciousness and spirit from beyond this Planet. . John was constantly challenged and astounded was by Sun Ra’s scholastic knowledge and perspective as well as being awed by Sonny’s mystic powers.

But the greatest impression on Gilmore was Sonny’s music………

’this cat played intervals more stretched out than MONK’ ‘I decided this was where I wold stay’

John would exclaim during a filmed interview some years later. While many musicians of that era were put off in varying degrees by Sun Ra’s use of inversions and added and/or altered chord tones…John and other sycophants like Hobart Dobson, Charles Davis and Pat Patrick, Ronald Wilson, and the great trumpeter Walter Williams (who rose to prominence with Ray Charles orchestra) found the RA approach refreshing and challenging.

And Sun Ra had found someone whose interpretation of his material was exactly in the intended spirit of the work ‘ Play it like John’ Sonny would instruct us.

After that fated rehearsal ……..John would dedicate the remainder of his years on planet Earth to the study of the music and cosmology of Sun Ra. Sonny’s disciplines for Arkestra members being of small challenge to the rather monastic and singular devotion to music and exclusive commitment to Sun Ra John would develop and maintain the rest of his life.

Part of Sun Ra;s ‘discipline’ was to commit yourself exclusively to Sun Ras music. Forsaking other gigs and bands……but the practical reality of survival and the need for money in ones pockets had most members quietly accepting other jobs, trying to make sure Sonny didn’t know or find out. ( you did not want Sun Ra to be pissed at you)

Sonny had a wire into what was happening around and would choose to comment, reprimand or just ignore the fact that his musicians would work elsewhere.

‘Often however if sunny knew you were going out on another gig….. (you never told Sunny THAT) he may devilishly find some impossible task for you to complete before going out. Occasionally he would choose to comment or even cuss you out about it.

‘ A little bird told me you were playing at Birdland last weekend when you missed my rehearsal’

For all his unquestionable loyalty Gilmore would get away to do his thing with a jazz community which held him in extremely high regard.

Recorded an excellent album as co-leader with Clifford Jordan in 1957 entitled ‘Blowing from Chicago’

And even leaving Sun Ra for a year to go out and work with Art Blakey for a year (1965-66)

John would also slip off and work with Olutunji, Charles Mingus and various other bands…….. for the large part maintaining a low profile so Sunny didn’t find out or if he did ………… least much later.

John was not a talkative or extroverted person at all. Maintaining a high level of privacy. His closest buddy in the band was Thomas ‘Bugs ’Hunter… the drummer/photographer and recording engineer for Sun Ra who with Pat Patrick and Walter Miller also started playing with Sun Ra as a teenager. John would occasional engage in a card game called ‘tonk’ with Arkestra members. They would wager and the obligation of the winner of the ‘pot’ was required to show up the next day or so with something he bought from his earnings from the game. John was a frequent winner. And a dapper dresser……now we know why….as the code prevented him from banking his earnings from the Tonk games.

This activity along with chess was the large extend of his hanging out with the ‘fellas’.

John was an excellent Chess player and would often play with Bugs and other high level players who would come through the band for a time.

I recall having the nerve to play John one chess game and he beat me in about 3 moves. I never bothered to waste his time at the chess board again. But I would watch him and bugs play.

Those of us who knew John understood and respected the fact that John was Sun Ra’s #1 disciple. This may be because he was the most suited in his demeanour and approach to life. He lived a hermit’s existence staying in his room practicing only coming out to rehearse with Sunny or eat.

Sun Ra ,himself, was the only person Ive ever knew who was as or more disciplined than John.

John was the quietist, most humble person you could ever meet. A sweet man of iron. He would offer small advice or council if queried, his reply being concise and to the point………………..Do not ask him for money but if you did .he would give it to you and you better pay him back. But If the whole band was broke. John had money…… why?

Because he never spent any except for Dunhill cigarettes. This was the only brand he smoked and they were so expensive I’ve never seen anyone ask him for a cigarette, (LOL)

John was a miser of the highest ilk, other than a small article every now and then and his regimen of herbs and teas and remedies. John did not spend money, he saved every nickel and dime. John was by nature quite generous. But the awe in which we held him kept us from disturbing his personal serenity even in emergencies. But he was always there to provide economic support for the Arkestra when emergencies or difficulties developed…. especially in the years after Sunny departed.

Sun Ra explained to us that John was also a hypochondriac….always talking about having to purify the toxins out of his body. John was in an intense and consistent battle against Mucous, Phlegm Worms and chemicals from foods (preservatives and insecticides), and the environment.

He would consistently seek and utilize remedies to purge his system. New treatments and potions advertised or spread by word of mouth would get his attention and he would be the first to try it. When he felt like talking if you asked him how he was feeling….THEN he would give a rather lengthy description of the results of trying the latest remedy he acquired for his migraine headaches, or back problems or digestive difficulties and on and on.

Johns personal innovative approach to improvisation became a cornerstone of John Coltranes musical journey. At a local jam session Gilmore took an alternate approach in negotiating his improvisation during a real fast number actually playing counter to or even against the rhythm section. Coltrane burst from the crowd yelling that’s it that’s it …….. amazed at how Gilmore would use the rhythm and time to structure his thematically based improvisations. Coltrane would later visit with Sun Ra and spend some with Gilmore…………….John showed Coltrane some intervallic exercises and rhythmic articulations that revolutionized His approach…………………coupled with the information’s and enlightenments given to him by Sun Ra Coltrane embarked on a new spiritual and musical course which began with A Love Supreme…………..when questioned about his change of life and music john Coltrane readily attested to the epiphany he experienced through John Gilmore and Sun Ra.

As for Gilmore……watching Coltrane literally become the god of the tenor sax after taking lessons with him……never taught again. I used to beg Gilmore for lessons and his reply was always the same……he didn’t teach anymore. Being in the Ra house and listening to him practice was dam near a lesson anyway so I consider myself truly blessed. John ha the highest respect for Coltrane and loved Sonny Rollins as well The scientific approach John took to the development of his improvisations was always rooted and filled with a spirit of immense intensity. He was truly a tone Scientist.

When Sun Ra decided to resurrect the spirit of Fletcher Henderson by rearing and performing it was John who would conjure the tenors of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and the clarinettist Buster Bailey articulating their classic improvisations ‘ exacta Mo’ as Sun Ra would transcribe their solos from the original recordings for John to recreate.

To this very day the name John Gilmore represents the highest level of Arkestral participation as well as musical genius and discipline.

His role in the Arkestra as Sun Ra’s principal soloist rivals the importance of Lester Young with the Basie band, Charlie Parker with Jay McShann , Stan Getz with Woody Herman, Illinois Jacquet/Arnett cobb with Lionel Hamptons , Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins with Fletcher Henderson Band, Paul Gonzales/jimmy Hamilton with the Duke Ellington orchestra and was at least as close as Charlie Rouse with Thelonious Monk.

Johns first love was Music…….living in the Ra House and hearing John practice over the course of 10 or so years………….I would hear John begin playing long tones on his clarinet about 6 am…….this would go on for an hour or two. THEN he would do a mirage of scales, arpeggios and classical etudes we are now at about 3 to 4 hours…………..then he would start all over again playing long tones on the Tenor and repeat the same procedure he did on the clarinet. Then he might go back to the clarinet.

Late at night I would hear his keys clicking as he practiced silently in the wee hours of the morns fresh due, you could hear him faintly playing drum paradiddles and rhythmic articulations on his practice drum pad.

I believe john took a special affinity to for all my natural talent…….. my musical fundamentals were not as rock solid as other serious players when I joined the Arkestra….i distinctly hearing John practice the four basic chords say the two days before a gig….then during the gig he would build a basically structured solo using those chords .i would practice those chords and try to duplicate the gist of his constructions in my own solos. This would go on for a time. Then I would hear him do something more complex the next time. Again I would practice that technique and incorporate that into my own solos. As John would hear me grasp the musical ideas he was subtly imparting to me ( playing them in my solos)………..he would then develop those ideas further. Sometimes it would be certain classic bebop phraseology…….one time I was soloing and was finally able to negotiate a particular classic bebop phrase that John would use frequently. And I heard him shout …….. YEAH! This to date is one of my most cherished encouragements…as John rarely exclaimed about anything When John actually made a vocalization about or doing your solo…you were REALLY playing.

Notwithstanding,…….. sitting between John and Marshall continually awed by the inner and outer worldly depth of their instrumental mastery and incredible volumes of creativity on as Sun Ra;s right and left hands…………I wanted to quit every night.

So, this went on for seven or eight months of rehearsing and touring constantly. And John was gradually making his solos more and more complex. Seemingly in relation to the progress I was making. Then about a year later one day I heard John practicing upstairs as I approached the Ra house I came in……….. he stopped. Later that summer at the Birmingham Jazz festival I hear John in his fullest glory superimposing motifs and figures from an alternate progression of chords over the ones Sun Ra was playing then going back and forth between improvising on the basic chords for two or four bars the modulating to his superimposition chords for the nest couple of bars then going back again …….

I was now on my own .

That was the greatest compliment I could of ever received

And the greatest lesson……

..if you want to learn…..Just listen …Just listen

the take what you’ve heard and develop it into your own self expression

and create your own method of practice.

Johns last words to me were so encouraging…….he was unselfish, unassuming and totally positive and as a brother could be. Others will speak of his pinnacle role in the development of saxophone improvisation…launching Coltrane into new directions

I remember John Gilmore as an inspiration, an example of excellence, discipline, dedication and loyalty…unselfish human kindness. Humility and brotherly love. Asceticism and self sacrifice.

I remember John Gilmore as a gentleman and a noble giant of Jazz.