“People Will Remember How You Made Them Feel”: Saxophonist Jess Gillam Returns to Trenton

Written by
Danielle Ranucci '23, TAP Senior Correspondent
Dec. 6, 2022

In May 2021, Trenton Central High School (TCHS) Orchestra students Zoomed with acclaimed saxophonist Jess Gillam. A year and a half later, on October 25, 2022, they finally met her in person. The event was sponsored by the Neighborhood Music Project and hosted by Lou Chen, program manager for Trenton Arts at Princeton (TAP). 

Jess Gillam hails from Ulverston in Cumbria, England. She is the first-ever saxophonist to be signed to Decca Classics, as well as the first-ever saxophonist to reach the finals of the BBC Young Musician competition. In addition to her performance career, Gillam is a passionate advocate for the power of music in society. She is a patron for Awards for Young Musicians and a trustee for the newly formed HarrisonParrott Foundation, which works towards equal access to the arts for all ethnicities, genders, disabilities, and social backgrounds. 

Gillam performs "Pequeña Czarda” by Pedro Iturralde
Gillam performs "Pequeña Czarda” by Pedro Iturralde. Photo by: Frank Wojciechowski.

On the rainy Tuesday of her visit, Gillam walked into the high school’s auditorium wearing an emerald-green outfit, ready to perform music and answer students’ questions. Onstage, Joseph Pucciatti, the director of the TCHS Orchestra, was leading his students’ warm-up. Gillam set down her instrument case next to a seat in the auditorium, crouched down, took out her saxophone, and played some scales. Then she stood and listened to the orchestra. 

“They’ve got range,” she commented. 

After the warm-up ended, Pucciatti called her up onto the stage. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a special guest here today,” he said. “Her name is Jess Gillam.” 

The students were cheering before he’d even finished speaking. 

Gillam performed three pieces for the students. She started with “Pequeña Czarda” by Pedro Iturralde, a song inspired by traditional Hungarian dances. At first, the melody drifted through the room like a wisp of smoke. Then Gillam’s fingers cascaded down the saxophone keys. The music quickened and became freewheeling. Gillam tapped her foot to the beat. So did some students. Finally, Gillam rose onto her tip-toes, played a high note, and lowered her saxophone. The students applauded. 

Gillam’s next piece was called “Lumina” by Ayanna Witter-Johnson. Go outside and listen. You’ll discover a lot of music in the form of trains, sirens, and other everyday sounds. That’s the concept behind “Lumina.” Gillam likened the composition to “picking sounds out of the air.” 

The song’s opening was tranquil and diffuse, as though Gillam were indeed picking out wisps of sound from the air. As the piece went on, she wove the melodies together into a tapestry of music, before finally letting them soar away into silence.

Gillam concluded her performance with a vibrant piece called “Braziliera” by Darius Milhaud, which she had previously played for the students over Zoom. In person, its melody was even more joyous. Gillam herself looked like she was trying to suppress a smile as she swayed to the music. 

Gillam rehearses with the TCHS Orchestra.

Gillam rehearses with the TCHS Orchestra. Photo by: Frank Wojciechowski.

After the song ended and the students’ applause died down, Gillam took a seat in the orchestra. They played several pieces together, from Lizzo’s rhythmic “Juice” to Chuck Mangione’s playful “Land of Make Believe.” They also played “Another Day of Sun” from La La Land, with the orchestra’s marimba player striding forward to sing lead vocals. The music was so warm that it was easy to forget it was raining outside. 

Finally, the students performed selections from The Phantom of the Opera. They had played this song last year, during the Kanneh-Masons’ visit. This year, their rendition was even richer. In the Overture, the strings sounded more brooding and the trumpets trilled more menacingly. In “All I Ask of You,” the strings and trumpets played together to create a soft but distinctive harmony. And in “Music of the Night,” Gillam’s saxophone was clearly audible. 

Gillam concluded her visit by answering the students’ questions. “What’s your favorite song to play?” asked Sorange, a senior saxophonist. 

Gillam shares a laugh with TCHS students

Gillam shares a laugh with TCHS students. Photo by: Frank Wojciechowski.

“It’s such a hard question,” said Gillam. “A couple of weeks ago I was playing with an orchestra the music from Catch Me if You Can. It’s with saxophone, xylophone, and double bass. It’s like a jazz trio with the entire orchestra behind them. It’s really fun.” 

“What’s the furthest you traveled to play?” asked Jonathan, a senior violinist. 

“Tokyo and Beijing.” Gillam smiled. “They were amazing places. And it’s interesting how audiences are different across the world, and how it feels onstage, how people react differently.” 

Another student asked Gillam about her favorite performance. 

“Some really special moments were coming out of the lockdowns, because we haven’t been able to play with each other for so long–to see people’s faces and connect with them.” She paused. “And also I love playing concerts in elementary schools and high schools, because you never know what people might think.” 

She described a performance she had given a week earlier at a Californian elementary school. “I played some quite difficult pieces, and then one of the kids raised their hands and said, ‘Can you play “Mary Had a Little Lamb?”’ And I played it. And they went wild.” 

The auditorium burst out laughing. 

“They absolutely loved it,” recalled Gillam. “It was just three notes, but I think it’s because when people can connect to the music, it means something to them.” 

“Can you play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb?’” a student asked. 

Gillam laughed, then played it, one-handed, to enthusiastic applause. Someone even shouted, “Encore!” 

Chen asked a final question: “Any last words of advice for these amazing young musicians?”

Saxophonist Sorange asks Gillam a question

Saxophonist Sorange asks Gillam a question. Photo by: Frank Wojciechowski.

“I’d say just enjoy the music as much as you can. You’ve got all these black and white notes on the page that you can [use to] connect with people out there,” said Gillam. “No one’s going to remember that you played an A-natural, but they will remember how you made them feel.”

After a final round of applause, the school bell rang and the students dispersed. They were still talking to each other about Gillam’s visit as they filed out of the auditorium. 

The saxophonist Sorange reflected on her experience playing alongside Gillam: “When I picked up my saxophone, I always felt like it’s like a distant instrument from the others,” she said. “But watching other musicians feel a connection with their music and be really in tune with what they’re doing, [seeing] that passion flowing out of them without anything halting them helps you see what you could be feeling. Having [Gillam] near me boosted me up. I feel like I’m playing ten times better.”