Bravo: Meet Joe Gilman

The music flows at Twin Lotus Thai, a restaurant owned by prominent jazz pianist and professor Joe Gilman and his wife, Kai.
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Joe Gilman
Photo by Kevin Gomez

The splendid vocalist Tracy Walton smiles knowingly as Joe Gilman warms up on his piano keyboard. It will be the first of many such looks as Walton and Gilman work their way through vintage classics and curated pop gems from the Great American Songbook. The pair are tucked up against the back wall of Gilman’s 6-month-old restaurant, Twin Lotus Thai on Folsom Boulevard. They’ll do Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Any More” and the familiar “Sentimental Journey,” but they’ll also squeeze in Jerry Garcia’s “Sugar Baby” and Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” Walton, widely known as a vocalist with the popular band Mumbo Gumbo, leans into the more creative lanes of Americana. Though Gilman is a jazz player mainly, he has no trouble finding common ground with her.

There is a bit of Superman in Joe Gilman. He doesn’t don a cape when he sits down at the keyboard, but he becomes otherworldly. His fingers ripple effortlessly up and down the keys, and notes cascade through the sound system in a musical fountain. There is a fluid effortlessness to his performance. Steeped in both jazz history and his own wealth of experiences, Gilman can play anything.

For this first-call jazz pianist in the region, there are more gigs in the offing than Gilman has time to play. There are his classes at American River College, where he is a full-time professor and head of the music theory and jazz skills programs. There are private students to teach. And now Gilman and his wife Surinipha (Kai) own and operate Twin Lotus Thai, where he regularly backs a varied cast of local vocalists when he’s not seating customers or busing tables. Gilman’s played music to adoring crowds around the world with some of the greatest musicians to ever pick up instruments, and he will again, but right now he’ll box up your half-eaten chicken satay to go. Gilman, who has a veteran musician’s subtle, wry sense of humor, will tell you, “Life’s funny that way.”

Joe Gilman performs with Carolyne Swayze and Mike McMullen
Joe Gilman performs with Carolyne Swayze and Mike McMullen. Photo by Kevin Gomez.

Gilman has played piano professionally on gigs that include a European tour as a featured sideman in late legendary vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s band and as keyboardist for Sacramento-based R&B hitmakers Club Nouveau on a Japanese tour. He’s been a Kennedy Center Jazz Ambassador to Africa with guitarist Steve Homan. And he’s played in the bands of Henry Mancini, Joan Rivers, Peter Noone and Wayman Tisdale. Groups he was with have opened for Wayne Shorter, Charlie Pride, Everything But The Girl, and Mel Tormé. Yet you can find him here in the College Greens strip mall amid the pot stickers and spring rolls sight reading a show tune for a recent Sacramento State graduate he’s given a spot to.

Gilman was thinking after he got his music degree from Indiana University he’d find a job teaching music somewhere. His pals in school (now very big-time jazz artists such as bassist Robert Leslie Hurst and trumpeter Chris Botti) mostly planned on moving to New York when they finished, and many were already playing with professionals during their breaks.

“They were kids, but they would go back to their hometowns of Detroit, Philadelphia, and they would gig with famous people. I didn’t even know that was possible,” Gilman says. “I’m from Carmichael, for crying out loud. I didn’t think I’d ever have a chance to do that.” But if his friends played with big-time pros, and he played with his friends, maybe he could play with the pros, too, he thought. Perhaps moving to New York wasn’t out of the question after all. First he’d get a master’s degree; then he’d go to New York as well.

During a summer back home in Sacramento, he met guitarist Henry Robinett, who had a band and a recording contract but needed a pianist. Robinett convinced Gilman to stay on. “I thought, well, that’d be a good thing to try, so I joined Henry’s band, and pretty quickly into that, the label Artful Balance Records gave me my own record contract,” Gilman says.

Being able to make his own records was a prize, but the fit was not perfect for Gilman. “I was a straight-ahead jazz musician and I got signed to this label that was more of this new-age stuff,” Gilman says. He could get work playing casual piano gigs, but that barely supported him, going to New York no longer felt like a viable option, and he couldn’t get any of the steady college teaching jobs he seemed suited for. Then the label went bankrupt and Gilman felt like he was just stuck, maybe needing to change course altogether.

Susan Skinner and Joe Gilman
Susan Skinner and Joe Gilman. Photo by Kevin Gomez.

“Everything was sort of like, what in the world am I going to do next?” he says. He applied to law school and was accepted at UC Berkeley’s Hastings.

Before moving, he played a noontime concert at American River College. After he performed, he was approached about applying for a new position as a music theory instructor who would teach some jazz-related classes. The job he hadn’t been able to get was now calling for him. “I rescinded my acceptance to law school and decided to be a community college teacher,” Gilman says. “That was really, I would say, the beginning of my adulthood.”

Teaching at ARC allowed Gilman the economic freedom to artistically pursue whatever he wanted to.

He made outstanding albums of his original music, “Americanvas” and “Relativity,” he made records of music written by Stevie Wonder and Dave Brubeck, and he has been the sideman on dozens of other recordings. He cofounded the Capital Jazz Project, a regional group of like-minded musicians who performed themed concerts based on music of jazz masters. He also began teaching at the Brubeck Institute at University of the Pacific, becoming its de facto musical director for more than a decade while sending dozens of young, well-trained, professional musicians out into the world. Institute namesake Dave Brubeck became a Gilman admirer and friend, sending Gilman Moleskine planners for Christmas presents. When jazz legend Bobby Hutcherson came calling, Gilman was able to regularly play with one of the greatest of all time until he passed away.

Gilman was married in the ’90s, but by the time the 2000s rolled around, he was divorced and single. Still, he wanted to be married. He just wasn’t sure how to get there. “I tried to find a partner in the normal ways and that didn’t particularly—I don’t even know if a normal way exists anymore,” Gilman says.

He began looking at online dating sites, eventually finding women who interested him on an international site based in Thailand. The women lived there as well. Correspondence was initiated. His adviser, Brian, who ran the site and also conveniently consulted on legal immigration, told Gilman the next step was coming to Thailand and meeting the women.

Though Gilman found Kai online, only one of them was actively looking to meet someone. Kai’s sister Tutka, who worked for the site, uploaded Kai’s photo there without her knowledge and then answered Gilman’s emails when they started coming in. It wasn’t until Gilman was coming to Thailand to meet her on his spring break that Tutka told Kai what was happening.

It’s not that Kai didn’t want to meet someone—she did. But she also thought perhaps her time was past. She had lost her cosmetics business and shoe store in the devastating Phuket tsunami of 2004. Struggling to put her life together afterward, Kai even asked a monk what she should do. “The monk told me to be patient and someone would come into my life,” Kai says.

Joe and Kai Gilman
Joe and Kai Gilman. Photo by Kevin Gomez.

She and Gilman met for the first time on her 30th birthday in 2005 at the website’s office for a 30-minute interview. It was the standard procedure. Tutka acted as an interpreter since neither Gilman nor Kai spoke the other’s language. They do somewhat now, though her English is better than his Thai.

They went on a couple of dates over the next few days, but Gilman’s time was short. “I was about to go back to the United States, and knowing that I had met this woman that I liked a lot, I asked Brian, ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ Brian said, ‘Well, you should get engaged.’

“I thought, ‘That’s the wildest thing I’ve ever heard. What do you mean? I just met her four days ago!’ He says, ‘Yes, but you’re going to have to get a fiancée visa to get her over to the United States. That process takes a long time.’” Brian told him to start the process then and get to know her later. One thing Joe Gilman is particularly skilled at is improvising: playing changes, adapting and creating in response to shifting melodic chords. They applied for the fiancée visa before Gilman left. “We met on a Monday; we got engaged on a Friday,” Gilman says. Then he went back over to Thailand a couple of times in the next few months; flights were cheap then.

He thought he would start a courtship to get to know Kai. She had a different idea. When Gilman arrived a few months later for the third time, Kai told him, “If you’re serious about me, then we’re going to get married. If you’re not interested in marrying me, then don’t come back.”

“I said, ‘OK, well, let’s get married then.’ We ended up getting married in Thailand in July. We had been together for about three months, I guess,” Gilman says.

The plan was for the restaurant to be a family business, with son Andrew running the front of the house based on his previous food service experience, Kai running the kitchen and daughter Laila filling in where needed. Gilman would handle most of the business stuff. Andrew got the front of the house staffed and set up, but after a few months he wanted to move on.

With few local venues offering live music, Gilman is now looking at setting up outside on the patio with slightly larger combos. He’s essentially a musical institution in Sacramento at this point. He had to add an extra matinee performance to his sold-out birthday jam at the end of June. He still plays a lot, having just completed a three-night sprint across Bay Area venues in a group put together by saxophonist Jacam Manricks. “It just happens in my case that what I do for a living is music and my hobby is music too,” Gilman says.