Saxophone prodigy Jess Gillam's story is a litany of firsts: she was the first saxophonist to reach the final of BBC Young Musician of the Year; the youngest-ever female performer at the Last Night of the Proms; the first saxophonist to sign to Decca Classics; and her first album, Rise, debuted at number one on the U.K. classical chart, when she was just 20 years old.
Born in 1999, Gillam was brought up in a music-loving family in the picturesque market town of Ulverston in Cumbria, in England's Lake District. Her family ran a tearoom, where she sometimes waitressed as a child. Gillam began to play saxophone at age seven, initially in a samba-inspired carnival band. She discovered classical music at age 11 when she saw a saxophone quartet play, and, amazed at the instrument's range, determined that she would pursue it. After she took lessons at a local high school, her raw talent saw her accepted into the Junior Royal Northern College of Music when she was 13. Three years later, she began studies with John Harle, who became her mentor.
In 2016, Gillam's big break came when, at the age of 17, she reached the final of the prestigious BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, becoming the first saxophonist ever to do so and the first to win the woodwind category. From then on, things started to happen rapidly: she made her Proms debut in 2017, played the Last Night in 2018, and performed at the BAFTAs in 2019. Her youth, fresh outlook, and funky dress sense seemed to see her positioned as a sort of 21st century answer to violinist Nigel Kennedy, who had shaken up the fusty classical world in the '80s with his punkish hair and loud suits.
Her debut album, Rise, issued by Decca in 2019, featured a selection of classical repertoire, film score pieces, and pop transcriptions, and went immediately to the top of the U.K. classical chart. In addition to performing, Gillam was also a teacher and a vocal activist against government cuts to music tuition. From the age of 12, she organized her own concert series in her hometown, which attracted international stars like Snake Davis, Courtney Pine, and Tommy Smith. Following the release of her album, it was announced that Gillam would become the youngest-ever presenter on the classical-oriented BBC Radio 3, as it attempted to capitalize on its growing youth listenership. ~ John D. Buchanan