Guitar god James ‘Blood’ Ulmer recalls when Soho was a garment district
By Chuck Arnold
With his freeform mix of jazz, blues and funk James “Blood” Ulmer was once described by Newsweek as “the most original guitarist since Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery.”
The New York guitar god — who has played with such greats as saxophonist Ornette Coleman, while also getting in his licks as a bandleader and solo artist — will flex his skills Saturday at the Sultan Room in Brooklyn as part of this year’s Winter Jazzfest (running through Jan. 18).
Here, the 79-year-old axman spills on how he got his nickname, what instrument he wishes he could play and living in the same place in Soho since 1975.
Where did your nickname “Blood” come from?
Wow, you’re going back a looong time. You’re talking ’bout when I was 18 years old . . . I didn’t like the name that I had when I came to New York, I guess. So when somebody would ask what my name was, I would say “Youngblood.” And then I said “Youngblood” so long that I took off the “Young” and it just was “Blood.”
Which artists did you have in your blood growing up in South Carolina?
Well, when I was coming up, I started in gospel. The groups I liked the best were the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the National Clouds of Joy. We had a gospel group [led by Ulmer’s father] called the Southern Sons from when I was 7 years old till I was 13. I was singing in the group until I got good enough on the guitar to play.
How old were you when you started playing the guitar?
My daddy started me off when I was 4 years old. He put me on his lap and wrapped my hand around his fingers playing on the guitar. I don’t think he thought that was gonna [teach] me anything.
If you could go back and play another instrument besides guitar, what would you play?
I wanted to play the saxophone before I played the guitar. My daddy had a guitar in the house, and I didn’t think that should be something you’d wanna take up for a career or anything. I thought the guitar was just a part of the house. I really wanted to play the saxophone ’cause I had a friend who used to come down South to visit his family, and he had this little alto saxophone. I would go to his house, and I would want to play that horn.
Who are some of your favorite guitarists, past or present?
I used to like Wes Montgomery. And I loved Kenny Burrell — in fact, I copied one of his solos and played it for a while when I started. And George Benson is my friend. But I don’t really listen to other guitar players, because I be workin’ on my own guitar.
How has Soho changed over all the years you’ve lived there?
When I moved on this street, Spring Street between Greene and Mercer, they didn’t call it Soho. This was a garment district, and there was nobody living here — only artists coming down here and renting places to paint and play music and stuff like that. It’s really changed. And the prices have changed.
You turn 80 on Feb. 2. Did you ever imagine you’d still be playing music at 80?
Well, I’ve never done anything else. All I did all my life is play music.