Don Ellis Biography

25 July 1934, Los Angeles, California, USA, d. 17 December 1978, Hollywood, California, USA. Appreciation of Ellis’ work has increased since his death and he is now regarded by many as an important figure in jazz. From childhood he was fascinated with brass instruments and received a trumpet at the age of two. At junior high school he had his own quartet and at Boston university he was a member of the band. His first professional work was as a member of Ray McKinley’s Glenn Miller Orchestra. After his national service, Ellis formed a small group, playing coffee-houses in New York’s Greenwich Village. By the late 50s he was playing with many name bands including those of Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus and Maynard Ferguson. Ellis also worked in small groups, enjoying the greater freedom of expression this allowed. In 1961/2 he was a member of George Russell’s sextet.

In Atlantic City, Ellis took up a teaching fellowship and it was there that he developed and explored his interest in the complexities of Indian rhythm patterns. Ellis made a triumphant appearance at the 1966 Monterey Jazz festival with his 23-piece band. His completely original themes were scored using unbelievably complex notation. Customarily, most big band music was played at four beats to the bar but Ellis confidently and successfully experimented with 5-beat bars, then 9-, 11-, 14-, 17-, 19- and even 27-beat bars. Mixing metres created difficulties for his rhythm sections so he taught himself to play drums in order that he might properly instruct his drummers. He also experimented with brass instruments, introducing the four-valve flügelhorn and superbone.

During the late 60s the Don Ellis Orchestra was promoted as part of the great CBS Records progressive music campaign and he found himself performing at rock festivals and concerts. His music found favour with the Woodstock generation, who could also recognize him as an exciting pioneer. His CBS albums were all successful, his work being produced by both John Hammond and Al Kooper. Dubbed the ‘Father of the Time Revolution’ in jazz, Ellis’ music was much more than complex. It was also undeniably joyous. Tunes like the 7/4 romp ‘Pussy Wiggle Stomp’, ‘Barnum’s Revenge’ (a reworking of ‘Bill Bailey’) and ‘Scratt And Fluggs’ (a passing nod to country music’s Flatt And Scruggs), are played with zesty enthusiasm, extraordinary skill and enormous good humour. Ellis’ trumpet playing was remarkable, combining dazzling technique with a hot jazz feeling that reflected his admiration for Henry ‘Red’ Allen. He also experimented with electronic devices, such as a Ring Modulator, which transformed his trumpet into a generator of atavistic moans and shouts. Conversely, as he showed on Haiku, he could play with delicate charm and often deeply moving emotion. Ellis scored the music for 10 films, including The French Connection (1971), for which he won a Grammy. It is, however, his brilliantly ambitious and innovative ‘eastern’ music, notably ‘Indian Lady’ and ‘Turkish Bath’ that makes his work as important as John Coltrane’s flirtation with the music of the mystic east. He is indubitably an outstanding figure destined for future reappraisal. Ellis stated ‘I am not concerned whether my music is jazz, third-stream, classical or anything else, or whether it is even called music. Let it be judged as Don Ellis noise’.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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