James "Blood" Ulmer is a singularity. Beginning with his explosive first solo LP Tales of Captain Black in 1979, he has relentlessly pursued his own unique artistic vision. With that first single statement, he solidified his rank as a prince of the American avant-garde. But it took a while to get to that point. His development into a juggernaut of independent musical expression was one of the reasons we looked forward to speaking with him.
Ulmer has maintained a healthy relationship with the city of Detroit since the 1960s, when he lived here under the auspices of finding himself creatively, until just last summer, when he presented a solo guitar performance at DIA. Ulmer performs at the Detroit Jazz Festival on Saturday, Sept. 5. In order to present the interview in full, we're publishing it one week early.
Metro Times: How did you get into music? When you were younger, what got you into music?
Ulmer: Wait a minute. I'm 75 years old, and I never did nothing but play music.
MT: So it just happened?
Ulmer: No, I don't remember what. I have just been playing music all my life.
MT: It was just there?
Ulmer: I don't understand that question. I don't know, I think music is probably something that is a part of a person's makeup, it's what you're gonna do. I don't know how to answer that question.
MT: No that was a perfect answer. [laughs] You're coming to Detroit, but you've spent some time here before.
Ulmer: I lived in Detroit for five years.
MT: I understand that you did some session work and taught at the Jazz Workshop?
Ulmer: The name of the place was the Detroit Metro Art Complex, a place where everybody can come and experience music — children growing up, whatever. Any instrument they wanted to play; I was in charge of the guitar department.
MT: So you were teaching children, adults, everybody?
Ulmer: Well not children; Detroit don't have children. [laughs] Young bloods, young groups, young fellas playing music, and older people too. Some people already playing music would come and see what the complex was offering.
MT: Were you in there with dudes like the Tribe, Phil Ranelin, those kinds of dudes?
Ulmer: Phil was one on the trombone, Sam Sanders played the saxophone, and Marcus Belgrave, plus a lot of other brothers I can't bring to mind right now.
MT: Maybe Wendell Harrison?
Ulmer: Yeah I think so, yeah. Anybody that was in Detroit that played an instrument was in it, I guess. I stayed in Detroit for five years. I didn't go on the road or out of town or anything.
MT: You went to New York after that.
Ulmer: I went to New York, and I've been in New York ever since.
MT: I know a lot of people that when they got to the 1980s and all the changes that were happening, they got shell-shocked by the music industry. But it seems like you just thrived in the '80s. You did what you wanted and were putting out tons of records, and making this beautiful music. And you didn't care what anybody else was doing.
Ulmer: That's true, yes.
MT: It seems like you never rest on your laurels and are always looking for something that you can create new.
Ulmer: That's why I stayed in Detroit, to figure out how to do that. I came to Detroit in the '60s, '65, '66. I studied music and explored my own self at that point. I was playing on the road with organ players before I came to Detroit.
MT: Oh yeah, with John Patton?
Ulmer: I made a record with John Patton while I was in Detroit and he was one of the reasons I left Detroit. I went to play with Patton in New York.
MT: OK. It's coming together. So, what do you think about rock 'n' roll?
Ulmer: Rock 'n' roll. I don't know. I've never played rock 'n' roll. I think rock 'n' roll came out of blues. That's the only thing I know about it.
MT: You just rock so hard. I've seen you make heartbreakingly beautiful string music, and I've seen you just destroy a stage with the rock 'n' roll. What are you going to bring to Detroit for jazzfest?
Ulmer: Let me get that straight. You've heard me do some rock 'n' roll?
MT: Well, I would call it that, yes. I mean, you were rocking. [laughter] You rock, dude.
Ulmer: What time? What year was that? You're talking about Detroit? The first record I made was called Tales of Captain Black, produced by Ornette Coleman. That was my first record and my first admission into standing alone on my own music, playing with no one but my own self, and in my own way.
That's what you call rock — I call it harmolodic funk. I was introduced to harmolodics from Ornette Coleman. He told me I was a natural harmolodic player. It's total rebellion against Western music. If you know the system of Western music and how the music is played, it's rebelling against that. The laws and the rules are a little different. Most people try to call it free music, but it's not free music.
MT: What do you do all day? You play guitar all day?
Ulmer: Boy, I tell you, I'm 75 years old. Play this damn guitar every day? I work on what I'm doing. I started playing guitar at 4 years old. I've been playing guitar for 71 years. So, you think I still play guitar all day? I'm working on music most of the time.
MT: Every day?
Ulmer: Yeah that's all I do, man. I tell you. Every other minute I would just play music. What do you do?
MT: I do music.
Ulmer: You do anything else?
MT: Well, I've got two kids.
Ulmer: I mean, you do anything else to feed them?
MT: I do a bit of woodworking too.
Ulmer: Well shit, I've got seven children, and I had to feed them all through music.
MT: That's beautiful. It's getting harder these days to do that because records are different, and the industry is different.
Ulmer: If you have something you want to do, I don't think things have changed at all. A lot of people before now used to play music and had a day job and all kinds of shit — play music, drive taxis. Music was a hobby. Everybody was playing an instrument. I can't explain it.
MT: If you have it in you, you just have to do it. It's not a choice.
Ulmer: You don't have nothing else to do. There you go. It ain't like something you choose. Wow.
MT: What are you going to do in Detroit when you come? Are you bringing a band?
Ulmer: I'm bringing the Black Music Experience.
MT: So it's gonna be full-on?
Ulmer: It's going to be all kinds of shit. I love Detroit. I played at the museum last year, solo.
MT: You're composing pieces for strings, right?
Ulmer: I got a project I do with that, yeah. They haven't hired me to do that in Detroit yet. I wish they would; I'd be glad to bring the string quartet there. Harmolodic guitar and strings. I brought the Memphis Blood Blues Band to Detroit before that. This is a different project. I have about five different projects.
MT: You've got five bands in New York going all at once.
Ulmer: No, one at a time.
MT: Well you've got to keep busy.
Ulmer: I've made 50 records. I revisit records that I made and I find how that works. This year I'm going to revisit my first record, and my second record called Are You Glad to Be in America? I'm playing in Austria in a week or two with the original people on that record made in 1981. I'm revisiting my records, and I'm getting a good response with that.
MT: You'll be improvising though, right?
Ulmer: You can't copy the record. I'm just saying you're going to revisit the music that you're playing on the record. People dig the same music all the time, but they can't play the same music the same way every time and that's the way it goes.
MT: Are you going to revisit a record for Detroit?
Ulmer: No, I'm not revisiting the record. I'm just revisiting the music that I used to play. It's vocal funk, the same kind of music you thought I play — rock 'n' roll. Rockin', funkin' — you know. Harmolodic funk.
MT: Who are some of your favorite guitarists that you listen to?
Ulmer: I don't listen to no damn guitar players. I don't listen to a guitar player. What guitar player would I listen to?
MT: What do you listen to?Ulmer: I don't even know the guitar players. Who plays the guitar? I don't even know. I've played with a few guitar players, but I don't really hang out with guitar players.
MT: And you tune your guitar in a different way than most people.
Ulmer: Yeah, no guitar player is using that tuning at all. I have no relation. I'm trying to get some of them to come learn this tuning, but it hasn't happened yet.
MT: It's just your own thing.
Ulmer: I've been playing the guitar a long time, man. Like I said, I've been playing the guitar for 71 years.
MT: That's a pretty good run.
Ulmer: [laughs] Yeah, it is. So who the fuck am I gonna listen to? Everybody I listened to is dead; everybody I know who played a guitar is dead.
MT: A lot of people going like that.
Ulmer: Yeah, that's what I'm talking about. I moved to New York in 1971, and Jimi Hendrix died.
MT: Jimi was huge, man.
Ulmer: They made Jimi huge. Jimi Hendrix died 27 years old. He wasn't huge at all. He made three records, and they made a whole spectacle out of Jimi Hendrix. They make a lot of money off of Jimi Hendrix — trying to get his sound through these machines and his guitars and shit. But Jimi Hendrix didn't ever get a chance to get started yet. He didn't even get the chance to get back in New York. He died in London.
MT: I've got some crazy recordings that they put out after he died.
Ulmer: Oh, they put out a lot of the shit out after he was dead, I'm telling you. Everything he rehearsed, every concert he ever played at, every back room he played in, they made a record out of it.
MT: And sold them too.
Ulmer: Of course. They sold it and sold it. They made an icon out of him. He don't know about it, though. That's the thing. He got much bigger since he was dead. You know, that's a shame people do that to you. I don't want that to happen to me. I want to do the thing I'm doing living, and I want to stop doing it before I'm dead. [laughs]
MT: Oh, you're gonna take a little break?
Ulmer: I'm already leaning towards not being a guitarist, but working with people who want to exploit the harmolodic music system. I'll work on music itself. I'm not trying to be a person who plays an instrument, but I try to work on music itself. That's why I write music. I write a lot of music, and, you know, hopefully someone will play it at some point. I'm working on music publishing. Publishing — that's what I want to work on.
MT: You write it out by hand, or what do you do?
Ulmer: Well, you can't write it out by toes. You've got to write it, record it, and have it available for people to listen to it and play it. Music is something I can study. I study the harmolodic guitar music.
Ulmer: I can tell you're no journalist.
MT: You can tell I'm not a journalist?
Ulmer: That's what I'm saying; I can tell. We're talking a long time. We're talking about all kinds of shit. I feel like I'm talking to my boy who I could play music with or something. You play the drums, right?
MT: Yes, I play the drums.
Ulmer: You're gonna get our conversation in the newspaper or something?
MT: I'll give it to them, and see what they can do with it.
Ulmer: Well, they're working on the city of Detroit, alright.
James "Blood" Ulmer and the Black Music Experience featuring Queen Esther performs at the Detroit Jazz Festival on Saturday, Sept. 5 at the Carhartt Amphitheater stage, in downtown Detroit. For more information, see detroitjazzfest.com.