© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
For the next segment in our continuing series on the evolution of the Don Ellis Orchestra, circa 1964-1978, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles turns to the chapter on Don Ellis in Leonard Feather’s From Satchmo to Miles.
The fact that there is a chapter on Don in this book [published in 1972] is significant in itself as the other chapters in the book are based on those Jazz musicians who exerted a great influence on the shape of the music including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Norman Granz, Oscar Peterson, Ray Charles and Miles Davis.
Rarified company, indeed, as Leonard explains in his introduction “From Satchmo to Miles … incorporates firsthand observations of a dozen figures, all of whom, I feel, have been vital to the development and advancement of jazz ….
I admit to having chosen these personalities very selectively. If you look for Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton, whose importance I would not wish in any way to belittle, either explicitly or implicitly, perhaps it should be pointed out that their exclusion does not mean that an essential aspect of jazz in the past forty years has been neglected. Count Basic is at least as valid a representative of the swing era as Goodman; Don Ellis in many ways offers a present-day parallel to Kenton.”
“JUST AS RAY CHARLES has succeeded in wiping out artificial barriers between jazz, rhythm-and-blues, and related idioms, so has the general trend of recent years indicated an increased anxiety on the part of innumerable musicians not to think or operate in terms of categories.
More and more often we have heard such statements as, "I don't want to be labeled a jazz musician," "Jazz and rock must draw from one another," "Jazz is a white man's word," and various dogmatic remarks telling us that jazz in some way inhibits the performer's freedom, and must yield the right of way to a new music, free of the stigma allegedly implicit in that word.
It remains unquestionably a matter of fact rather than opinion that jazz today is alive, that even those artists who abhor the word continue to play the music, that it is taught more extensively than ever at the school and college levels, that concerts and festivals are staged in its name.
Since the late 1960s the changes in jazz have been more fundamental and have evolved at a more accelerated pace than at any previous period. On the one hand, musicians are demolishing the fences, opening the way toward the new, nameless idiom that represents their concept of a musical Utopia; on the other hand, factionalism, particularly in the form of racial separatism, has tended to draw the performers away from each other, polarizing a music in which unification has long been an objective.
These contradictory cross-currents are nowhere better illustrated than in the cases of Miles Davis and Don Ellis. Both are generally accepted as innovative jazz musicians; both are composers who play trumpet and flugelhorn; both have become deeply involved in the use of amplified instruments, wah-wah pedals, ring modulators, and other devices that control and distort what we have always thought of as "natural" sounds.
Despite these superficial similarities, however, the worlds of Ellis and Davis overlap only minimally. The most conspicuous difference between them is that while Ellis is primarily interested in experimentation with big-band jazz, Davis has given new directions to small combo music. Don talks to his audiences at length about the subdivisions of 9/4, 7/8, 9/8, or 3/2 they are about to hear; Miles, who does not find it necessary to tell his listeners anything, allows his musicians almost limitless latitude and is far more concerned than Ellis with freedom and spontaneity.
That Miles is black and Don white may be assumed by some to connote an automatic difference in their approaches. Of course, it could be pointed out that Ellis worked for quite some time as a sideman or leader in predominantly black combos, and that Miles has never had an association more fruitful than his partnership with the white composer-arranger Gil Evans in a series of ambitious orchestral ventures. The contrast actually is one of attitudes determined by background and associations rather than simply of race per se. Ellis clearly has sprung from the roots that gave us Stan Kenton. His orchestra usually is almost or completely all-white, as Kenton's bands have been, and the composition of his audiences is similar. Miles thinks black and talks black, but his appeal is interracial, and paradoxical though it may seem, his group in recent years has been more international and more integrated than Ellis' band; in person or on records he has employed an English bassit, a Scottish guitarist, Austrian and English pianists, and a Brazilian percussionist.
The temperamental differences between the two men are not hard to perceive. As both trumpeter and leader, Ellis exercises a tight, hard-edged discipline. He can perform with great lyricism but more often displays harmonic and rhythmic complexities. The listener is less conscious of the technical or intellectual effort that goes into the creation of a Miles Davis solo.
It must not be concluded from these observations that the jazz of Ellis and the jazz of Davis are mutually exclusive: a member of one group might find himself at ease with the other. Still, these two dominant personalities of the 1970s are representative of two clearly different directions in contemporary jazz.
On the afternoon of September 18, 1966, the audience at the Monterey Jazz Festival accorded a tall, blond, trumpet-playing composer-bandleader named Don Ellis what may have been the most thunderous standing ovation in the festival's history.
One of the most talented young musicians in America today, Ellis is also something of a paradox. As a musician, he is a radical innovator, an exponent of unlimited freedom, an uninhibited experimenter who once performed a piece consisting entirely of musicians standing around a piano and looking at it in total silence. At the same time, on the personal level he is a conservative, clean-cut, all-American — totally rigorous and disciplined.
His triumph at Monterey climaxed years of experimentation with almost every kind of musical adventure. There were tours as a band sideman; combo gigs with Charles Mingus and George Russell; the formation of several groups of his own that played Greenwich Village, Stockholm, Oslo, and Warsaw; Third Stream ventures with Leonard Bernstein and Gunther Schuller; study on the West Coast; and a long flirtation with Indian music that resulted in his Hindustani Jazz Sextet. After a year in Buffalo he went to Los Angeles where, in 1964, he launched a rehearsal band, which varied from twenty to twenty-three men and which produced the orchestra responsible for the Monterey madness.
Intermingled with Ellis' various jobs were several stretches of studying and teaching, an initiation into liturgical jazz, numerous painstaking attempts at journalism, and a number of forays into the recording field, some of which ended in frustration when the albums were never released.
Nat Hentoff, one of Ellis' earliest and most vociferous rooters, has observed that "No contemporary jazz composer makes use of as many different devices. He draws from both the classical and jazz traditions, and invents forms of his own. His writing is as varied as his playing."
Donald Johnson Ellis was born in Los Angeles on Jury 25, 1934, the son of the Reverend and Mrs. Ezra Ellis. A precocious child, he began to show musical talent at a very early age. His mother, a church organist who had studied to be a concert pianist, noticed Don's rapid development; by the age of five he could transpose a tune from C to G without hesitation.
"But I rebelled against piano lessons," says Don. "I hated scales. The trumpet, on which nobody ever had to talk me into taking lessons, was what held my interest."
His formal musical education included composition studies with four teachers, trumpet lessons with at least seven, and a degree in composition from Boston University in 1956.
His attraction to jazz began at West High School in Minneapolis. "The first band I ever heard in person was Tommy Dorsey's, with Charlie Shavers on trumpet. I was so fascinated I even forgot the chick I was with and just sat there open-mouthed." A few years later he heard both the classic Hot Five 78s of Louis Armstrong and "Manteca" and "Cool Breeze" by the early Gillespie band. Although Armstrong and Gillespie were far removed from each other, they both excited Ellis.
(Don himself has been compared to such diverse jazz artists as Dizzy, Rex Stewart, Roy Eldridge, Maynard Ferguson, Fats Navarro, Clark Terry, and almost every jazz trumpet giant.)
After graduating from college, Ellis auditioned successfully for the Glenn Miller band, then directed by Ray McKinley, and joined up immediately. "I'll never forget how he started his professional life," his father recalls. "He had nothing but a toothbrush, a razor, and a trumpet."
"It was quite an indoctrination," Ellis agrees. "We had three months of one-night stands with a total of three nights off, making a minimum of 500 miles a day on the bus. But I was happy to be right out of college making $135 a week. I stayed until September of 1956, when the Army got me."
The Army was more fun than drudgery; the Seventh Army Symphony and Soldiers' Show Company included a jazz orchestra, for which he was chief arranger. During his second year the band was fronted by Leo Wright, later well known as Dizzy Gillespie's sax-and-flute specialist. The personnel also included Sam Fletcher, the singer; Cedar Walton, the pianist now best known as an Art Blakey alumnus; and saxophonist Eddie Harris.
Once out of the Army, Ellis shared a cramped apartment in Greenwich Village with Fletcher, Walton, and pianist Horace Parian. He played some local gigs, a few brief stints with dance bands in Boston, and a short tour with Charlie Barnet. Then one night Slide Hampton and Joe Zawinul of the Maynard Ferguson band heard Don sit in with a combo at Smalls Paradise in Harlem, and promptly recommended him to Ferguson. He joined the orchestra in the spring of 1959 and remained for nine months. "Maynard was a great natural talent," says Ellis. "In those days no one else could play like that."
In the next couple of years Ellis broke away more and more from standard bebop playing and the symmetrical, formula method of writing. He demonstrated his concern for freedom and expansion of tempo and meter on his first album as a leader, a 1960 cut on the long-defunct Candid label. Prominently featured on the LP was Ellis' roommate, a friend from Boston and an ex-Ferguson colleague, Jaki Byard, who was closely associated with Ellis from 1959 to 1962.
"Ironically," Ellis recalls, "at the time of what turned out to be the end of our professional relationship, I was set to take a quartet into Wells' in Harlem, and found that Jaki didn't want to play uptown." Byard, who is black, and Ellis were feeling the first effects of the reverse racism that disapproved of mixing.
Some observers, aware of Ellis' rightist views, find a curious paradox in his close musical association and personal friendship with black musicians. His father is a friend of Richard Nixon, who has visited Rev. Ellis’ church, and Don is a staunch Republican, a Reagan enthusiast, a Goldwater fan and an opponent of the Rumford Fair Housing Act. He says: "I'm for a complete laissez-faire capitalist economy" and believes that "If people who have the intelligence not to be prejudiced would simply ignore racial differences, the whole racial problem would be solved rapidly."
In his politics as in several other respects Ellis has much in common with Stan Kenton. Like Stan, he is a restless seeker after new musical forms. Both men are tall (Ellis six feet, Kenton six feet four inches) and physically prepossessing; both have a keen sense of self-promotion; both lean toward grandeur and magniloquence rather than simplicity and soul.
Don is a firm disciplinarian. "Those rehearsals have to start right on the button," says Dave Wells, formerly of Ellis' trombone section. "He figures out his whole life that way."
Ellis' rigid self-discipline enabled him to concentrate his efforts on the furthering of his professional ambition. As everyone now knows (including the imitators, who are multiplying by the minute), the door to success was unlatched by mathematics—a kaleidoscope of metric novelties that could swing the tempo of his big band, in the course of a single set, from 5/4 to 5/8 to 13/4 to 27/18 to 6/8, with only a now-and-then glimpse back at that quaint old 4/4 beat that used to be the basis of all jazz.
According to Third Streamer Gunther Schuller, who annotated the first Ellis album and later used him in a series of contemporary music concerts, "Ellis has found a way of expanding the rhythmic vocabulary of jazz to include rhythmic patterns heretofore excluded because they couldn't be made to swing. ... It is evident that he has listened to Webern, Stockhausen, and others of the avant-garde."
The shape of swing to come was clearly indicated in a 1961 interview when Ellis said, "I don't know where jazz is heading, but I'd like to see it keep improvisation and swing. And it doesn't have to be sanctified to swing ... it doesn't always have to be 4/4. There are a lot of other time signatures to try out. I think we'll go into 5/8 and 7/8. Hall Overton was showing me some things like that. . . ."
The Village years were productive both on the musical and personal levels. One night a stunning blonde ex-model named Connie Coogan walked into the Phase 2 on Bleecker Street where Don had a gig. She became Mrs. Ellis in July of 1961. Their combined experimentation has included a natural-health-food kick, which allegedly improved Don's vision, enabling him to Throw Away That Glass Mask (early photos show him wearing heavy horn-rimmed glasses). Don even gave experimental names to his sons, Brav and Tran, born in 1963 and 1964. "This was an attempt to get away from the same old familiar names," he explains. "Brav was derived from Bravo and Tran from Transcend." The Ellises were divorced in 1971.
In October of 1962 Don went through the familiar prophet-without-honor phase. He and Connie left for a couple of months of travel and study, starting at the International Jazz Jamboree in Warsaw. He wrote "Warsaw Diary" for Down Beat, recording the minutest details of the festival, each entry clocked to the nearest fifteen minutes.
He and the Poles, who were deeply immersed in the Third Stream, got along famously. Soon afterward, in Stockholm, Ellis reported, "We were treated like royalty. The musicians I recorded with for Swedish radio were very sympathetic to the 'new thing' and impressed me with their natural feel for it."
It was in Stockholm that Don earned his first headlines by mixing straight playing with "jazz happenings" at Gyllene Cirkeln [Golden Circle], a jazz restaurant. The happenings supposedly represented an acting out of something a musician might have thought or felt during the evening in relationship to what he had been playing. The concept was reflected in such gambits as using sticks on the piano, pouring salt into it, inflating and bursting paper bags, crawling around under the piano, or drawing a paintbrush across the strings.
Looking back at these attempts to become the John Cage of jazz, Don says, "I felt jazz musicians could do more than classical musicians. The idea was, everybody was too staid and stagnant, afraid to try new things. I never felt that Ornette Coleman was that new or radical.
"There was one happening called The Death in which we just stood around the piano looking at it. It was fascinating, because of the varying audience reactions; it was a dramatic thing.
"This was just something I wanted to try out, but I later found it didn't have enough substance to justify doing it over and over. Other areas were more fruitful."
Lalo Schifrin, the composer and pianist who collaborated with Ellis in an Improvisational Jazz Workshop in New York in 1963, had reservations about Don's motives for staging happenings. "Don was and is one of the most creative musicians on the scene," says Schifrin. "His imagination is just what jazz needs. However, sometimes he would become too bold, just to attract attention. I felt we were becoming too much actors, and for me this was not really art. Later I was pleasantly surprised to see Don come back to music. I guess he had just gone through a Dada period, like the French poets and painters in the 1920s."
In 1964 Don returned to Los Angeles, where he conducted workshops in improvisation and ensemble playing at UCLA. At this time a latent fascination with Indian music surfaced as he studied with the sitarist Hari Har Rao, who worked with him in a group they called the Hindustani Jazz Sextet. Next he formed a big workshop orchestra, the forerunner of his current band.
From the start the big group employed unconventional meters and instrumentation; Ellis added three drummers and a three-man bass section. The latter sometimes sawed away in somber unison but also were often used for intricate harmonic effects. His percussion section included cowbells, conga, cuica, and bongos, as well as conventional American drums. A later innovation was an attachment that can feed sound from Don's trumpet or any of the other horns to an elaborate amplifying system.
If the men have problems with a 5/8 or 9/4 beat, Ellis sits down with them and claps the part until everyone claps together. (Aware that drummers had difficulty learning to keep the odd time signatures, Don taught himself to play drums— "in self-defense, so I could demonstrate to my drummers how those meters went.") "He's a real teacher-preacher type personality," said Dave Wells. "I never saw Don lose his temper with the band. He covers up his emotions very well. When our morale was low, you can imagine how much this helped."
The Ellis initiative was forcefully demonstrated one night when the band arrived at the Havana Club where they were working, and found it padlocked: the owners had had a disagreement and closed it up. Ellis, unruffled, called up Walt Flynn, a trombonist friend, who was working at a Hollywood club called Bonesville. Within an hour the entire band followed Ellis into Bonesville, together with customers from the padlocked room.
"From that time on," says Ellis, "things began to pick up."
Stan Kenton, intrigued by the concept of offbeat time signatures, took Ellis under his wing. One evening in February 1966, Don brought the Hindustani Jazz Sextet to the Los Angeles Music Center. In an original work aptly entitled Synthesis, he grasped Kenton's entire mighty Neophonic Orchestra, stuffed it in his very hip pocket, and ran off with the show.
"We used two basic ragas," Ellis says, "with Hari Har Rao on sitar and tabla. I explained to the audience that the Indians have the most sophisticated rhythmic system in the world." He also used a jazz saxophonist, plus mallet and rhythm instruments, all fortified, of course, by the twenty-five towering neophonicists around them. The synthesis wound an idiomatic route from New Orleans to New Delhi, with brief European and African detours along the way.
The Kenton break set the ball in motion . . . now it was up to Ellis to keep it rolling. During the next few months he urged his Bonesville audiences to keep up a letter-writing campaign, pleading that the big band be introduced at Monterey. Festival chief Jimmy Lyons read the letters, heard the band, and gave his word that the deal was on. Meanwhile the fast-growing Bonesville movement took on the aspect of a cult.
On a typical Monday evening at Bonesville, Don's wife Connie sat by the entrance, ready to collect the $1.50 admissions. On the wall at her side was a placard advising the unaware that membership in the Don Ellis Jazz Society would entitle the joiner to such privileges as a reduced ($1) admission fee, a free brochure about Don and the band, an autographed photo of Don, and a free supply of "Where Is Don Ellis?" bumper stickers of the type that had publicized him at Monterey. It was 7:30. For the past hour the band had been running over some new charts. The concert was due to start at 8, but this was one of those nights when the early entrants would get in on the end of a rehearsal.
Ellis tried out a number he had scored for a vocal album. A songwriter friend had commissioned him to write arrangements of several of her tunes. After the first rundown, Ellis said, "All right, now let's transpose it from D minor to E minor, and then we'll try it in C minor, because one chick has a real low voice, and we don't know yet what singer is going to do this song or what her range will be." The band patiently went through the chart in all three keys, with Ellis taking the vocal on trumpet.
This done, Ellis looked around and, in a very even voice, said, "Are we having trouble getting blue shirts for Monday? It looks kinda nice, you know, blue shirts. Those wearing white tonight, what happened?"
An unintelligible mumble came from the three-fourths of the band members wearing white shirts. "Well," said Ellis, "make it blue every night from now on." A moment later he was busy explaining to a drummer how to get the right feeling into a 5/8 work.
By the time the rehearsal ended, the room, a sparsely decorated high-roofed bar with a seating capacity of three hundred, was half full. By the end of the first formal set, customers were standing in line outside.
After each number Ellis spoke to the crowd as if he were addressing an assemblage of loyal constituents. When he found himself becoming too technical in explaining the next number, he used a bit of humor to lighten things. For instance, after explaining a work written in a nineteen-beat meter and correspondingly titled "3-3-2-2-2-1-2-2-2," he added, "Of course, that's just the area code,"
On the program that night was a composition by a Czech writer, Pavel Blatny. A couple of years before, Ellis had received a tape recorded by Blatny in Prague of an original work featuring a trumpet playing quarter-tones.
"Blatny later sent me the music, then I persuaded a New York instrument manufacturer to make me a quarter-tone trumpet. I guess they were determined not to let the East beat out the West. Maybe someday I'll get a five-valve trumpet so that I can play eighth-tones."
Another finger-twisting feature of the opening set was a boogie-woogie number conveniently shorn of one beat, which gave it a limping quality. Ellis called it "Beat Me Daddy, Seven to the Bar."
As the evening wore on, Ellis' announcements became more informal and engaging than ever. He announced his forthcoming appearance at Shelly's Manne Hole (the band's first full week anywhere). He plugged a benefit for an ailing musician. After dwelling on three or four more extraneous topics, he said, "Oh, yes, about this next tune. What did I say we were going to do?"
Early predictions of success have been borne out by Ellis' progress in the past five years. Don is very much involved in all aspects of the music field. He led the all-star "dream band" at the Berlin Jazz Festivals in 1967 and 1968; at the 1968 Festival his cantata, Reach, was premiered. He has scored two motion pictures: Moon Zero Two, filmed in London and not released in the United States, and The French Connection; he also made a joint appearance with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, playing Ellis’ Contrasts for Two Orchestra and Trumpet,
Still as deeply concerned with teaching as with learning, Ellis has given courses at U.C.L.A. and San Fernando Valley State College. He has emphasized his role as a drummer, playing more frequently and studying with a private teacher.
The band, gaining substantially in public acceptance, has toured extensively and with notable success at colleges, and has played everywhere from the Ed Sullivan Show to the Fillmore West (both of which it has fortunately survived). There has been a series of Columbia albums of variable merit. The band was nominated for a Grammy award by the Recording Academy for four consecutive years but has not yet won.
The Kenton analogy was brought to mind when, during Kenton's illness, Ellis substituted for him as leader for a week in the summer of 1971.
Of his own orchestra Ellis now says: "We went through a heavy rock phase, but now we're getting into new colors. By early 1971 I felt I had explored as much as possible within the standard orchestral framework, even with the electronics; so I added a string quartet, which helped mellow the sound of the band when necessary, and transformed the saxes into a woodwind quartet. We don't need three bass players any more because everyone plays electric nowadays, so I switched to just one fender player. I'm enjoying all the challenges of this revised instrumentation.
"As for my political views, I don't consider myself a right-winger. I'm a radical for personal freedom and liberty. I'm disappointed in Nixon. He came in on one set of principles, then operated on another. Why, if a left-winger had made some of those same proposals, everybody would be up in arms!"
Nat Hentoff once pointed out that Ellis had done much to prove, by his own example, that musical freedom is increased rather than constricted by the acquisition of knowledge. It is safe to assume that in the years immediately ahead he will continue not only to acquire new knowledge but also to impart it to a growing audience wherever jazz is heard. Toward the end of the last decade I ventured a prophecy that Ellis would become the Stan Kenton of the 1970s. To a substantial degree that prediction has already been borne out, and I suspect, to paraphrase Goldwater, that in his heart Kenton knows this is right.”