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Who is Jess Gillam?

Everything you need to know about the young British classical saxophonist, who has made waves on stage, screen and radio

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 28: Jess Gillam performs at the DECCA Records 90th Anniversary event at White City House on February 28, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images)

Saxophonist Jess Gillam first captured the public’s attention in 2016 when she reached the final of BBC Young Musician and faced off against cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and horn player Ben Goldscheider, both of whom have also gone on to develop illustrious careers in the classical music world.

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We named Gillam’s performance in the Woodwind Final of the 2016 competition as one of the best BBC Young Musician performances of all time.

After her success in the competition, she signed to Decca Records in 2018, with whom she has released two albums. 2018 was a big year for Gillam, who also topped the Sound of Classical poll at the Classical BRIT Awards, which celebrates artists under the age of 30.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 13: Winner of the Sound of Classical 2018 award, Jess Gillam speaks on stage during the 2018 Classic BRIT Awards held at Royal Albert Hall on June 13, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)
Jess Gillam wins the Sound of Classical award at the 2018 Classical BRIT Awards (Image credit: Getty Images)

She also performed at the Last Night of the Proms, playing Milhaud’s Scaramouche. 

Gillam can also be found on the airwaves with her weekly Radio 3 programme This Classical Life, in which she interviews other young artists about their favourite works and musical discoveries. She has presented the programme since 2019 and has gone on to also join the presenting team for the TV coverage of BBC Young Musician. In the 2020/21 competition, she hosted a series of ‘In Conversation’ discussions with previous competitors and leading industry figures.

In September 2018, Jess Gillam appeared on the cover of BBC Music Magazine ahead of her performance at the Last night of the Proms.

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BBC Music Magazine named Jess Gillam as one of the best classical saxophonists of all time.

Who was Jess Gillam’s saxophone teacher?

Saxophonist John Harle has taught Jess Gillam since she was 15, and has also written two saxophone concertos for her and produced her first album, Time, for Decca. ‘She’s totally the next thing,’ he told BBC Music Magazine in 2020.

‘I instantly connected with John’s sound when I heard it,’ she told BBC Music Magazine. ‘It is so genuine and distinct, and so vocal. l. There’s a real intensity to it, and yet a really sweet lyricism to it at the same time. Every single note has a different quality to it, and every single note matters. It was when I heard his performance of Nyman’s Where The Bee Dances that I remember thinking “I’ve got to do that!” and really wanting to get into classical music.’

She studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, where she had started as a youngster in the Junior Royal Northern College of Music’s Saturday morning courses.

Where is Jess Gillam from?

Gillam is from Ulverston in Cumbria. She played in the Carnival Band and at school in Ulverston. It was here that she decided to play the saxophone. ‘At the local Carnival Band, there was a choice of percussion, dance, stilts, costume making and saxophone,’ she told BBC Music Magazine. ‘The saxophone was what I came to last, after I’d tried everything else. I found I could make a sound on it, and completely fell in love with it.’

‘When I was in primary school, the local secondary school ran this brilliant initiative called the Primary Tuition Scheme,’ she says. ‘Through it, primary school children could pay two pounds a week to have a lesson from a sixth-former. I took saxophone lessons, and also got to hear some of the bands at the school. It was brilliant because it was so easy to relate to the people teaching you, and they got so many people involved. That scheme has, I believe, now been cut – or at least made more expensive – because of lack of funding. That is such a crime.’

Jess Gillam’s albums

Time: Works by Glass, Nyman, Richter, Meredith, Talbot et al
Decca 4851065

‘Like her debut album Rise, Jess Gillam’s second release is packed with eclectic short works. But unlike RiseTime has a clear and effective theme, describing the hubbub of a single day in London, Gillam’s new home.’

Read full review of Jess Gillam’s Time here.

Rise: Works by Milhaud, Nyman, Williams, Harle, Bowie, Weill et al
Decca 4834862

‘Rise is an eclectic mixtape comprising excerpts from standalone works and both classical and pop arrangements. Gillam – who plays soprano and alto saxophone here – excels in the 20th-century repertoire.’

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Image credit: Getty Images