5 Questions to Jess Gillam (saxophonist)

In a field dominated almost exclusively by men, the ascent as a soloist of British saxophonist Jess Gillam is extraordinary. The first-ever saxophonist to be signed to the Decca label, Gillam is currently an artist-in-residence at Wigmore Hall in the heart of London’s West End. In 2018 she became the youngest soloist ever to perform at the last night of the Proms, a British cultural institution. Her fluid, seemingly effortless playing and her warm and ebullient stage presence make her a transfixing live performer who unabashedly blends classical, pop, and jazz tunes.

Gillam grew up in Ulverston, Cumbria, in North West England, where her family owns and runs the award-winning Gillam’s Tearoom. The tearoom is across the street from where the family ran a grocer for more than a century — a business founded in 1892 by Gillam’s great-great-great-grandfather.

At the Aspen Music Festival this year, Gillam gave the U.S. premiere of Pressure of Speech, a new commission by Nico Muhly, programmed alongside works by John Harle (her Guildhall mentor) and Ayanna Witter-Johnson, a composer, cellist, and friend. She is as adept at playing Bach as she is Björk; her first album, Rise, features arrangements of music by Kate Bush and David Bowie, and her follow-up album, Time, includes music by Max Richter, Meredith Monk, and Thom Yorke.

In 2021, Gillam was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to music, a recognition usually awarded to people decades her senior, and an indication of her stellar rise before her 25th birthday. These days she balances her solo touring career with numerous artistic and educational projects, and as host of BBC radio’s This Classical Life show. Next month she will give the U.K. premiere of a new, “darkly magical” commission from Anna Clyne called Glasslands, with the BBC Philharmonic in Nottingham.

You have previously worked with Anna Clyne, who has just written a new concerto for you called Glasslands. What about Clyne’s music speaks to you?

I love the vibrancy of Anna’s music — I think it’s driven by melody and emotion. The way she has allowed the saxophone to sing and soar in Glasslands, as well as utilising its more raucous and powerful side, is a lot of fun (and a brilliant challenge!) to play with. I first played it with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra earlier this year, and it is co-commissioned by Orquesta Sinfonica de Castilla y Leon, the Detroit Symphony, the BBC Philharmonic, Naples Philharmonic, and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra.

The next performance is in the U.K. on 5 October with the BBC Philharmonic, which I am very excited about. It is set in three movements and conjures an imaginary world of three realms governed by the banshee — a female spirit who, in Irish folklore, heralds the death of a family member (usually by wailing, shrieking, or keening in the silence of the night). The opening saxophone notes really do pierce the room and open the door to this mystical world that Anna has created.

Jess Gillam - Photo by Robin Clewley

Jess Gillam – Photo by Robin Clewley

How did growing up in North West England shape who you are as a performer?

Growing up in a small market town with a very strong community has had a huge influence on me as a person in general, and I feel very fortunate to have grown up in such a beautiful part of the world — although I didn’t make the most of it then! Now that I am travelling so much, I definitely crave the open space, epic landscapes, and fresh air.

I was very fortunate to be able to pick up the saxophone at the Barracudas Carnival Arts Centre (where my dad taught drums) in Barrow, a nearby town. The instrument had me hooked — it captured my imagination, and I was in love with its dynamism and energy. The vigour, excitement, and liveliness of a carnival was the perfect
place to start. We met twice a week to rehearse — once with the band, and once with the dancers, stilt walkers, and backpackers. I instantly felt like I was part of a community — a team of people who had a shared vision, together creating a huge sound and splash of colour! The band toured all over the country playing at some of the U.K.’s biggest carnivals. It was a hub for creativity and joy, and a celebration of what the arts could achieve. The Barracudas provided so many people — from a huge range of backgrounds, ages, and abilities — with a sense of belonging and purpose.

I have really enjoyed organising and promoting concerts in Ulverston since I was about 12, and I still love doing it now — Cumbria is a place like no other, and performing there is always very special!

The saxophone has a specific cultural context within jazz, and a parallel but distinctive development as a classical instrument (particularly in the late 20th century). You blend parts of both traditions, as well as championing pop, rock, and other styles of music. What’s important to you about genre-bending, and how do you think about the saxophone as a cultural object in its different contexts?

For me, Miles Davis had it down with idea that ‘good music is good music’ and it doesn’t matter what ‘genre’ it is. Pieces of music are like people — they can make you feel something or not.

The saxophone is fascinating as it can be seen as an instrument that doesn’t fully ‘belong’ anywhere — it was designed as a military instrument, used a little in classical music, and then adopted and brought up by dance and jazz music where it flourished and we heard what was possible with it. I see it as an instrument that can act almost as a democratiser of genre and label — it’s a truly fluid instrument that can break free from the boxes and labels we have invented for music. The malleability and directness of its sound is unique — it can wail and soar and seem to smash the world into a thousand sound pieces, but also be extremely tender and whisper. It can capture so many emotions and tell so many stories. We have a lot to thank Mr. Sax for!

Jess Gillam - Photo by Sam Becker

Jess Gillam – Photo by Sam Becker

Reflecting on your astonishing list of achievements — both as a performer and a presenter — still relatively early in your career, what do you hope your life will look like 20 years from now?

2043 feels like such a long time away — almost an alien year! I hope the world is safe, first, and that we have made the changes we need to make to protect it.

Musically, I hope I am still learning every day and discovering new things about the saxophone and how to collaborate with it. I hope to maintain a high level of curiosity about what music can do and how we can connect with each other through its power. I’d love to be in a place where I can realise my ideas for projects and shows and bring them to life with a great team — collaboration is the key!

Personally, I hope to find balance and be the best friend, partner, colleague and family member I can.

What’s the best tea, and how long should it steep for?

There can only be one answer to this — Gillam’s! Gillam’s is our family business in Ulverston and has been in the family since 1892 and is now run by my parents. I started waitressing and working there when I was younger, and I think it gave me a lot of confidence and also set off a fascination in people. Mum and Dad sell over 100 loose leaf teas and blend a lot of their own, too! I love Scottish Breakfast (strong enough to tackle any jet lag) and Rose Grey if I am feeling fancy — the steeping time depends on your tiredness level!


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