Born James Ulmer on February 2, 1942, in St. Matthews, SC; also uses Muslim name, Adamu (or Damu) Mustafa Abdul Musawwir. Addresses: Record company--Innerhythmic/Invasion, 133 West 25th St., 5th Floor, New York, NY.

Guitarist, flutist, and vocalist James Blood Ulmer once joked that he cannot find where his music is located in record stores. Having worked and recorded with Ornette Coleman, Art Blakey, Joe Henderson, Arthur Blythe, David Murray, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and George Adams as bandleader and sideman, Ulmer is recognized as a central figure in the post-fusion movements of 1970s and 1980s jazz. Yet within this experimental framework, his guitar playing and songwriting incorporate blues, funk, and rock idioms, making it difficult to categorize his innovative musical forms. A 1981 Newsweek profile hailed him as "the most original guitarist since Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery," comparisons that also suggest the different rock and jazz worlds in which his music has moved.

Ulmer has, on occasion, called his music "black rock"--a term later popularized by admirer Vernon Reid of the rock group Living Color--and "harmolodic diatonic funk." Critics over the years have tried to pin it down: Musician's Chip Stern labeled the sound "punk jazz," Guitar Player's Bill Milkowski named it "avant gutbucket," and Greg Tate, author of Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America, claimed it possessed an "urbane primitivism." Whatever its name, Ulmer's hybrid vision helped define the role of electric guitar in contemporary free jazz; and, when working with volume, distortion, blues phrasings, and conventional song structures, his dissonant music has periodically crossed over to rock audiences.

From South Carolina to Detroit

Ulmer was born in St. Matthews, South Carolina, on February 2, 1942. Gospel and the blues--spiritual hymns and worldly tales--were formative influences during Ulmer's youth. At the age of seven, he joined his father's gospel quartet, the Southern Sons, where he learned to play guitar and sing baritone. He performed with the group until he was 13. His interest in the blues occasionally led to trouble on the homefront. "Down South," he told Guitar Player magazine in 1990, "we had two kinds of blues: one that was forbidden, and one that wasn't."

The sexual frankness of the former style, as practiced by a local named Johnny Wilson, did not appeal to the guitarist's mother. "I used to love to hear [Wilson] play the blues," Ulmer reported, "and I used to go up there and try to listen to him. But every time I'd tell Mama, I'd get my ass beat just for listening to Johnny Wilson." A high school group organized around chapel meetings provided the teenaged Ulmer with an outlet for his musical energies.

Ulmer moved to Pittsburgh in 1959 to begin his professional career. He played rhythm guitar with pop/R&B groups like the Savoys and doo-wop outfits like the Del-Vikings. His encounters with Chuck Edwards and a 15-year-old George Benson introduced Ulmer to straight-ahead jazz guitar playing; indeed, Edwards taught Ulmer that music-making could be generated from feelings other than the blues. Benson directed Ulmer to strum and pick with his thumb, following the jazz guitar innovator Wes Montgomery. Gigs with organ-based combos led by Jimmy Smith and Richard "Groove" Holmes further refined Ulmer's jazz technique. Finally, Pittsburgh was the breeding ground for Ulmer's famous moniker: nicknamed "Youngblood," he was soon just called "Blood."

Ulmer's first band, Blood and the Bloodbrothers, was formed in 1963. Now based in Columbus, Ohio, the guitarist sought opportunities to express himself creatively; but the Bloodbrothers, who backed visiting acts like Dionne Warwick with their steady gig at Columbus's 502 Club, couldn't meet his aspirations. He played with organist Hank Marr, whom Ulmer appreciated for not, as the guitarist told Down Beat in 1980, "just pumpin' the blues."

After touring Europe with Marr's quartet and recording with the group, Ulmer relocated to Detroit in 1967. There he learned how to read and write music, and he taught guitar at the Metropolitan Art Complex; he also formed two bands, the James Ulmer Trio and Focus Novii. Featuring drums, bass, alto sax, trombone, and guitar, Focus Novii was a free jazz forum for Ulmer's original compositions. During this time Ulmer also experimented with "unison tuning"--this method, which tunes a number of the guitar strings to the same note, was to become a hallmark of Ulmer's sound.

Studied with Ornette Coleman

Frustrated with the limited role of the guitar in traditional jazz combos and inspired by his original work in Detroit, Ulmer left for New York in 1971. A friend who worked at the Bluebird club in Detroit where Ulmer performed had spurred on the guitarist. Ulmer told Howard Mandel of Down Beat that his friend said, "'I want you to take this month and go to New York and find Miles Davis. Tell him I sent you to play with him.' I said, 'Good, give me the money, I'm ready to go.' He did, and I came to New York. I never found Miles. But I found Coleman!"

Influential jazz composer and alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman proved a vital collaborator for Ulmer throughout the 1970s. While Ulmer briefly gigged with Art Blakey as the first guitarist for the Jazz Messengers in 1973 and did session work with Joe Henderson, it was Coleman who truly pushed Ulmer. After a nine-month stint in 1971 at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem--where Ulmer was hired to play the blues but instead performed his originals--the two met through Rashied Ali, a drummer the musicians shared during this time.

Ulmer soon moved into Coleman's loft and studied "harmolodic" theory. Harmolodics is Coleman's term for an ensemble style that combines harmony, movement, and melody. As Down Beat's Safane put it, "Each instrument ... is both a melody and a rhythm instrument; players abandon their traditional role and, for example, instruments such as bass and drums that ordinarily accompany now share as lead voices in musical creation."

Harmolodics jibed with Ulmer's atonal explorations in Detroit, where he was seeking a new expressive range for the jazz guitar. Indeed, Ulmer was integral to Coleman's harmolodic theory, as he taught the saxophonist the potential for guitar in an electrified, free jazz setting. Their work in the decade was marked by appearances at the Ann Arbor Jazz and Blues Festival in 1974, at New York's Five Spot in 1975, and at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1977. Ulmer also spent time in the studio with Coleman's band Prime Time, recording a set of then-unreleased performances.

Coleman's tutelage bore fruit in Ulmer's solo career, inaugurated for a wider public with the guitarist's first studio release. Ulmer's 1979 LP, Tales of Captain Black, was a record of instrumentals, featuring Coleman as a sideman on sax, Denardo Coleman on drums, and Jamaaladeen Tacuma on bass. In 1990 alter Hetfield of Guitar Player called Tales "a landmark jazz guitar LP that showcased Ulmer's aggressive, open-ended approach and his inspired polyrhythmic interaction with a superb band."

Ulmer followed Tales with 1980's Are You Glad to Be in America?, a record that featured David Murray, Oliver Lake, Olu Daru, and a rhythm section of Amin Ali and G. Calvin Weston, who would support Ulmer off and on through the 1980s. The album also introduced the sweet and hoarse roar of Ulmer's singing. In 1982 Stanley Crouch of the Village Voice praised the record's eclecticism, particularly the guitarist's "combination of Eastern drones and quick be-bop like passages, held together by his knowledge of shuffles, funk beats, and march rhythms."

And as Coleman influenced 1960s avant rockers like the Velvet Underground, so too Ulmer began to hold sway in New York City's punk/New Wave scene of the late 1970s. His band often played New York's legendary punk club, CBGB, and in 1980 opened for Public Image Ltd., formed and fronted by ex-Sex Pistols singer John Lydon. But 1980 also saw Ulmer recording with the Music Revelation Ensemble, a new jazz group whose album title--"No Wave"--drolly commented on trends in pop music. Down Beat critics honored Ulmer that year with the Talent Deserving Wider Recognition award in the guitar category. Then, in what was a singular lineup of blues surrealists, Ulmer and Captain Beefheart took the stage together in 1981.

On the heels of Ulmer's independent-label releases, Columbia Records signed the artist. With wider distribution and critical praise, the three records he made for Columbia--Freelancing, Black Rock, and Odyssey--aimed to create a larger market for Ulmer's unique methods. The records featured him primarily in a three- to four-piece rock format, with horns relegated to individual tracks. For author Greg Tate, Ulmer's distinctive guitar style delivered "shrill, disjointed fragments, nervous bits and rickety pieces tied together by a staggered but wryly swinging thematic sensibility." He performed live during this period with a power-blues group consisting of himself, Weston, Amin Ali, and occasionally second guitarist Ronnie Drayton; this outfit, coupled with Ulmer's embrace of distortion and wide acceptance of the guitarist by white rock fans, inevitably led to comparisons with Jimi Hendrix.

On Odyssey, Ulmer worked with an unusual trio of drums, guitar, and violin. Howard Mandel of Guitar Player called the record "a rocking blues raga hoedown," while Coda's Ben Ratliff itemized its many effects: "It's music that can simultaneously bring to mind the [Rolling] Stones' choppy groove, the cyclical rhythmic and melodic vamps from Jajouka or Nigeria, Georgia Sea Islands call-and-response gospel, and most definitely the high lonesome jigs of early southwestern country music." Both jazz and pop critics for the Village Voice voted Odyssey Album of the Year in 1983.

Separated Jazz Playing from Blues Preaching

Nonetheless, Columbia dropped Ulmer after Odyssey, and Ulmer himself abandoned the "harmolodic pop songs" of the Columbia efforts, as he termed them in a 1990 Guitar Player interview. Ulmer-led trios and quartets existed through the 1980s, but the guitarist also turned his attention to two improvisational outfits, Phalanx and the Music Revelation Ensemble. These were on-again, off-again combos that sought a less systematic vision of free jazz than the Coleman method; Ulmer contributed to the bands as accompanist and, occasionally, chief songwriter. Phalanx reunited Ulmer with one of Hank Marr's horn players, George Adams. The quintet first played publicly in 1984, when the Village Voice called the music "melancholy and rowdy, but almost always coherent and persuasive.... Phalanx could become a key band of the '80s."

A different quartet of musicians featuring Ulmer was mistakenly called Phalanx by a record company on a 1986 release, Got Something Good for You. A 1987 album with Sirone and Rashied Ali--members from 1984--was thus called Original Phalanx, but, in fact, this version of the band lacked violinist Billy Bang from the 1984 gigs. Without violin, the interaction of Ulmer and Adams as soloists defined the Phalanx sound. In Touch showcased Ulmer on flute as well as guitar.

By this time Ulmer returned his creative energies to blues music. His solo efforts in the late 1980s and early 1990s led him to work within the very boundaries his earlier music dissolved, and this sound met with mixed reviews. The jazzier America--Do You Remember the Love? brought Ulmer together with producer/bassist Bill Laswell. A Musician reviewer called the album "a likable country-blues synthesis, but in trying to make an 'important' statement it succeeds only at being ordinary," but Down Beat thought its "rhythmic support, catchy hooks, [and] fuller production values" made it his "best album since ... Freelancing."

The blues-identified music of Blues Allnight, Black and Blues, and Blues Preacher gave Ronnie Drayton a larger role as second guitarist. Simon Adams of Jazz Journal International considered Ulmer's "blues playing ... an unsubtle thrash" compared to his work with Phalanx and MRE, while Bob McCullough of the Boston Globe found that Blues Preacher's "slower tempos ... [left] Ulmer plenty of room for his sonic explorations and gritty vocals." By 1994 Ulmer had made a decisive break from the eclectic style of earlier years, telling Down Beat, "I want to separate the styles of my music, I don't want to play all mixed-up." He introduced Blues Preacher by saying, "In this way, we can perfect each style by itself and make it a more satisfying experience for the listener."

Ulmer released Music Speaks Louder Than Words in 1997. The album featured six compositions by Coleman, among them "Lonely Woman," "Elizabeth," "Street News," and "Cherry, Cherry," in an apparent tribute to the jazz great. Of Ulmer's treatment of Coleman's signature tune "Lonely Woman," Down Beat critic Zoe Anglesey commented, "Ulmer's lyrical cast to the melody recalls its residual beauty." Also included on the album are three songs penned by Ulmer and keyboard work by Ulmer's son, Michael Mustafa Ulmer.

Other releases in the 1990s included Reunion, a live album, and Forbidden Blues. Blue Blood, which was originally intended as a second album by Third Rail, a jazz/funk group that Ulmer formed in 1993, was released in 2001 on Bill Laswell's Innerhythmic label. The group included Laswell on bass, Ziggy Modeliste on drums, Bernie Worrell on organ and clarinet, and Amina Claudine Myers on organ, electric piano, and vocals, but the music was essentially Ulmer's own. Also in 2001, Ulmer released Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions, a collection of 14 blues cover songs on which he collaborated with guitarist and producer Vernon Reid of Living Colour.

by Matthew Brown

James Blood Ulmer's Career

Began playing guitar and singing with gospel quartet the Southern Sons, 1949-55; moved to Pittsburgh, PA, began performing professionally, 1959; formed Blood and the Bloodbrothers, Columbus, OH, 1963; made recording debut on Hank Marr in the Marketplace, 1967; wrote and played original jazz compositions in the James Ulmer Trio and Focus Novii, Detroit, MI, 1967-71; studied and toured with Ornette Coleman, New York City, 1972-77; released debut solo record, 1979; signed by Columbia Records, 1981; released solo records, toured with three-piece rock band; toured and recorded with Phalanx, 1984-88; recorded with Music Revelation Ensemble, 1980, 1988, and 1990; formed Third Rail, 1993; released Music Speaks Louder Than Words, 1997; Reunion and Forbidden Blues, 1998; and Blue Blood and Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions, 2001.

James Blood Ulmer's Awards

Named Talent Deserving Wider Recognition in guitar category, Down Beat Critics' Poll, 1980; Odyssey named Album of the Year, Village Voice Critics' Poll, 1983.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

May 24, 2005: Ulmer's album, Birthright, was released. Source:,, May 30, 2005.

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…