Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Herb Ellis, RIP

Photo caption: Herb Ellis, left, with bassist Johnny Frigo and pianist Lou Carter, who performed together as the Soft Winds. The three musicians formerly played with the Jimmy Dorsey big band. (Family Photo)

(Turns out, along with famous teacher Jaime Escalante, and with a father of a friend, it seems it was a hell of weekend. TM)

Herb Ellis dies, considered one of best jazz guitar soloists

By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; B06

Herb Ellis, 88, a jazz guitar virtuoso who swung hard behind such jazz luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Stan Getz and was a member of the celebrated Oscar Peterson Trio in the 1950s, died March 28 at his home in Los Angeles. He had Alzheimer's disease. His last performance was in 2000.

In a career than spanned six decades, the Texas-born Ellis was regarded as one of the finest jazz guitar soloists. Innovative guitarist Les Paul paid him the compliment: "If you're not swinging, he's gonna make you swing."

After an early stint with the Jimmy Dorsey big band, Ellis formed the Soft Winds trio in 1947 with two Dorsey colleagues, pianist Lou Carter and bassist Johnny Frigo.

The trio was not a major commercial success during its five-year existence, but the group recorded many songs and developed a fine reputation in later years among aficionados. The members co-wrote "Detour Ahead" and "I Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out," both of which have been widely performed by other artists.

Peterson, who often sat in with the Soft Winds, recruited Mr. Ellis as a replacement for guitarist Barney Kessel in 1953. Mr. Ellis was an ideal accompanist for Peterson, supplementing the often flamboyant playing of the pianist with precise, uncluttered chord work and economical but swinging solos. They were joined by bassist Ray Brown.

"It was probably the highlight of my career to work with those guys," Mr. Ellis once said. "Oscar's a mental giant. He'd give me stuff to play and I'd say, 'I can't play this Oscar.' He'd say, 'Yes, you can. I know how much you can play.' "

The Peterson trio also served as the house band for Norman Granz's Verve record label and on Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, accompanying Fitzgerald and such instrumentalists as Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster and Roy Eldridge. Mr. Ellis also recorded on the side and made some astonishingly good records, among them "Nothing but the Blues" (1957), featuring Brown, saxophonist Stan Getz and trumpeter Eldridge.

Mr. Ellis left the Peterson trio to tour with Fitzgerald and later embarked on a solo career that often found him generously sharing the spotlight with other jazz guitar virtuosos such as Kessel and Joe Pass.

Mitchell Herbert Ellis was born Aug. 4, 1921, in Farmersville, north of Dallas, and raised on a cotton farm. "I don't know if I heard blues when I was young, but if you could see where I lived, it would give you the blues," he once said.

He took up banjo at 8 but quickly gravitated to his older brother's guitar. Mostly, he said, he wanted to show up his sibling, who had tuned the guitar incorrectly.

His early influences came from the radio, on which he heard everything from Western swing to the European jazz records of guitarist Django Reinhardt. Mr. Ellis enrolled at the University of North Texas in Denton, where his roommate was reed player Jimmy Guiffre. Jazz records blared through the dorms, and Mr. Ellis became particularly fascinated by electric guitarist Charlie Christian, whose music "sounded like what a tenor saxophonist would play on guitar."

When the money to continue his studies ran out, Mr. Ellis moved to Kansas City, Mo., then a thriving jazz center. He had a heart murmur that kept him from military duty during World War II, his family said.

He lined up work with Charlie Fisk, a local big band leader, and then with Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra before joining the popular Dorsey band in 1945.

In 1957, Mr. Ellis married Patti Gahagan. She survives, along with their two children, Kari Yedor and Mitchell Ellis, both of Los Angeles, and three grandchildren.

Mr. Ellis wearied of the constant road work with Peterson and left the group in 1958. After a couple of tours with singers Fitzgerald and Julie London, Mr. Ellis settled into a career as a studio musician, including stints in the television bands for the Steve Allen, Merv Griffin and Regis Philbin shows. He also recorded as a leader for Verve and Columbia in this period as a leader.

By the 1970s, Mr. Ellis had become a touring musician again, following a series of recordings for the Concord label. These included pairings with guitarists Joe Pass and Laurindo Almeida and a trio with bassist Brown and Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander.

The Great Guitars, with Mr. Ellis, Kessel, Charlie Byrd, bassist Joe Byrd and drummer Chuck Redd -- the not-so-humble name came from an Australian promoter -- became mainstays of the jazz circuit and performed several times at Charlie Byrd's club Charlie's of Georgetown in the District and the King of France Tavern in Annapolis.

"The individual chases are dazzling, but some of the most delightful work come in the ensemble passages, where harmonic subtlety and snappy counterpoint prevail," Washington Post music critic Richard Harrington wrote of Great Guitars.

Joe Byrd recalled Kessel as the "kibbitzer" of the group while Mr. Ellis was more reserved. Kessel would chat with fans long after they had finished playing. At some point, a set of keys would come flying toward the bandstand, and Mr. Ellis would yell, 'Hey, Barney, remember to lock up, okay?' "


David Cranmer said...

Many an hour was enjoyed listening to his fine playing. TWO FOR THE ROAD and JOE'S BLUES are favorites.


Ben Gage said...

I love his music...

Richard R. said...

I had missed that he died. Too sad. Have to pull out some Ellis and play it today. Thanks for the great post! (yes I know that's not very analytical, but I'm in a rush)

Todd Mason said...

I have been, as well, hence the cut and paste, basically (and my sporadic attention to anyone's blog or list) is pretty remarkable how many excellent sessions Ellis sided as well as led...