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Jazz Gillum

No harmonica player was as popular or as much in demand on recording sessions during the '30s as Jazz Gillum.

William McKinley Gillum, b. September 11, 1904 in Indianola, MS, d. March 29, 1966 in Chicago, IL, known as Jazz Gillum, was a blues harmonica player.

He was born in Indianola, Mississippi. He ran away from home at the age of seven and for the next few years lived in Charleston, Mississippi, working and playing for tips on street corners. He moved to Chicago in 1923, where he met the guitarist Big Bill Broonzy. The duo started working at nightclubs around the city. By 1934 Gillum was recording for ARC Records and Bluebird Records. Gillum's recordings, under his own name and as a sideman, were included on many of the highly popular "Bluebird beat" recordings produced by Lester Melrose in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1940, he was the first to record the blues classic "Key to the Highway" (featuring Broonzy on guitar), utilizing the now-standard melody and eight-bar blues arrangement. (The song had first been recorded a few months earlier by Charlie Segar, with a different melody and a 12-bar blues arrangement.) Gillum's version of the song was covered by Broonzy a few months later, and his version has become the standard arrangement of this now-classic blues song. Gillum's records were some of the earliest featuring blues with electric guitar acompaniment, when the 16-year-old jazz guitarist George Barnes played on several songs on the 1938 Gillum session that produced "Reefer Headed Woman" and others. He joined the United States Army in 1942 and served until 1945. Gillum recorded an early version of "Look on Yonder Wall" (1946) with Big Maceo on piano, which was later popularized by Elmore James. After the Bluebird label folded in the late 1940s, he made few recordings. His last, slightly sad recordings were on a couple of 1961 albums with Memphis Slim and the singer and guitarist Arbee Stidham, for Folkways Records. On March 29, 1966, Gillum was shot in the head during a street argument and was pronounced dead on arrival at Garfield Park Hospital, in Chicago. He is buried at Restvale Cemetery, in Alsip, Illinois. Gillum's daughter, Ardella Williams, is a blues singer in Chicago.


by Jason Ankeny
One of the pre-eminent Chicago harpists of the pre-war era, Bill "Jazz" Gillum was born September 11, 1904 in Indianola, Mississippi. He picked up the harmonica at the age of six, and five years later ran away from home to live with relatives in nearby Charleston; after spending his formative years playing street corners and house parties for spare change, Gillum moved to Chicago in 1923, and before long he hooked up with guitarist Big Bill Broonzy, often playing together as a duo in area clubs. Following a few sideman dates for ARC, he signed with RCA Victor's Bluebird imprint in 1934 to record as a solo artist; his strong relationship with producer Lester Melrose also resulted in a steady stream of session work, and he was a fixture of the "Bluebird Beat" house band. Gillum was drafted into the Army in 1942, and when he returned from duty, his high, reedy harmonica sound had been largely eclipsed by the harder-edged style of John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson; he recorded a few more sides for Bluebird, but drifted into obscurity by the 1950s, dying after a gunshot wound to the head on March 29, 1966.