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“Don Elliott spread his talent across so many endeavors that he never received his due as an inventive Jazz artist. Elliott played trumpet, mellophone, and vibes, sang and acted. He did all of that well-enough to work with George Shearing, Buddy Rich, Benny Goodman, Billy Taylor, and Teddy Wilson; record with Paul Desmond [and pianist Bill Evans]; appear in a Broadway musical; and collaborate in hit novelty recordings.”
- Orrin Keepnews
Looking back, there was a time when being able to play a pretty ballad was expected of every Jazz musician [drummers were coached to sit patiently through them while listening attentively and accompanying the proceedings with some quiet brushwork].
Some musicians took “pretty” to another level and made it downright beautiful.
Two such Jazz musicians were alto saxophonist Paul Desmond and multi-instrumentalist Don Elliott.
Each was a lyrical, sensitive and very expressive player and in combination they were exquisite. Both crafted solos that were witty, thoughtful and brimming with harmonic intelligence.
It was an inspired pairing, albeit a short-lived one.
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to remember Don on these pages with another of our early-in-their-career features which references the recording with Paul Desmond as something which hadn’t as yet occurred.
“'I Don't Want To Be Typed Says Versatile Don Elliott” - By Dom Cerulli
[January 1956 Down Beat]
“DON ELLIOTT, who plays any musical instrument that hasn't got reeds or strings, is afraid of being typed.
"I'm worried about this thing becoming a gimmick," he said between sets at Jazzarama in Boston. "Actually, I enjoy playing each instrument." During his stay, he played only the mellophone, vibes, and bongos.
Turn him loose on a big bandstand, and Elliott can hold his own on valve trombone, tuba, trumpet, piano, baritone horn, accordion, and if they're all spoken for ... he will probably sing.
The 29-year-old jazzman started musically on the accordion at the age of 7. At Somerville, N. J., high school he played mellophone and baritone horn. Later, in a dance band, he found that there were enough trumpet players, so he stuck with the mellophone.
A difficult enough instrument to play straight, the mellophone is a diaphragm-stretcher to swing. But Elliott bounces along with it and its tone, which lies somewhere between that of a trombone and a French horn.
"YOU WON'T believe this," he said, "but I got onto vibes because I had two trumpets. When I got out of the army in 1946, I had this pair of trumpets and a buddy of mine had two sets of vibes. So we swapped."
Following the swap, Don gigged around until landing a spot with a quartet—but as a singer. In '48 and '49, he was with Hi, Lo, Jack, and the Dame. He became a singer again for a recent Bethlehem record date, and plans to explore that field a bit more.
Eventually, Don would like to front a big band with what he terms "a sound of beautiful simplicity, if there's such a term."
Elliott had a band in 1953, but despite some agency interest, he was told he came along about 10 years too late. "But things seem to be picking up a bit as far as big bands go, and maybe someday I'll be able to put together a commercial but very interesting sounding dance band."
He has three favorite big bands, "Basie for jump, Thornhill for ballads, and Les Brown, in the middle."
RIGHT NOW, Don indicated that given his choice he would prefer to play concerts with his group. "I think any jazz musician prefers concerts. You start with the knowledge that the audience is there specifically to hear jazz. In some clubs, it's difficult to get across to the audience."
Elliott's immediate plans include cutting some fugues with altoist Paul Desmond and doing some woodshedding with his trumpet. ;
"That's my favorite horn," he said. "I've got to pick it up again one of these days."
Scooter Pirtle published an extremely thorough profile on Don’s career in The Middle Horn Reader. Here’s an excerpt after which you’ll find a video montage with Don performing Everything Happens to Me with Paul Desmond.
Don Elliott: He Was a Gentlemen, too
by Scooter Pirtle
Originally published in 1994 in “The Middle Horn Reader”
During his illustrious career, Don Elliott performed jazz as a vocal musician, vibraphonist, trombonist, trumpeter, flugelhornist and percussionist. He pioneered the art of multi-track recording, composed countless prize-winning advertising jingles, wrote music for hit Broadway shows, prepared music scores for motion pictures, and built a thriving production company. Incidentally, he was also the greatest mellophonist who ever lived.
The Early Years
Don Elliott was born Don "Helfman" in Somerville, New Jersey on October 21,1926.1 The son of a silent film theater organist and vaudevillian pianist, Don became a music student of his father at the age of four. Don's father, Albert, was somewhat of a sensation in Somerville. A gifted organist, he took pride in his ability to improvise musical backgrounds for silent films at the local movie palaces.
Don's first instrument was the piano accordion, a gift from his father. Albert realized the potential of his son and frequently informed Don's mother, Nettie, that Don would be famous someday. Tragically, Dan's father died of a heart attack in 1933 at the age of 36.
Don continued to use his natural music abilities throughout his early childhood by performing for various clubs and charity groups. By age 11, Don was a seasoned performer. Within a year he accepted his first professional "gig" playing trumpet at a New Year's Eve party.
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