Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Ellis, Don (Donald Johnson)
Jazz critic Leonard Feather once predicted Don Ellis would replace Stan Kenton as the premier ensemble innovator in jazz. Ellis, a trumpeter, bandleader, experimental composer, author and music educator, achieved this distinction and more in his tragically short career. His groundbreaking orchestra reinvigorated the world of large-format jazz at a time when big bands had faded from the scene.
Born Donald Johnson Ellis in Los Angeles on July 25, 1934. His father, E. Ezra Ellis was a Reverend Doctor of Divinity and his mother, Winston Johnston Ellis, a church organist who set aside a performing career to follow her husband’s calling. Young Ellis had an early fascination with brass instruments and reportedly held his first trumpet at the age of two. Growing up in Minneapolis, he attended performances of notable jazz groups traveling through the upper Midwest, including the big bands led by trombonist Tommy Dorsey and drummer Gene Krupa.
Ellis formed a jazz quartet in Junior High at a time when the music took second stage to numerous polka bands and other European folk ensembles formed by Minnesota’s diverse ethnic community. Some of these complex ethnic time signatures ended up the compositions that he wrote attending Boston University from 1952 to 1956. He studied trumpet at BU with John Coffin and also across town at the Berklee School of Music with trumpeter Herb Pomeroy.
After earning a bachelor's degree in music composition and a Teacher’s Certificate in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Coffin helped him earn a successful audition with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, then led by Ray McKinley. Later that year, the Army drafted Ellis and shipped him Germany to perform with the Seventh Army Soldiers Show Band. He also joined the Army Jazz II and III Orchestras, and suddenly was playing alongside saxophonists David Sanchez, Leo Wright, Eddie Harris, Lanny Morgan and Don Menza. The jazz band toured throughout Europe, performing some of Ellis’ own compositions, including a complex-metered tune called “Ostinato” that he would later record on his LP titled Essence.
He left the Army in 1958, moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village and found work as a sideman with dance and swing bands, including clarinetist Woody Herman’s Herd and the orchestra led by vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. From March to October of 1959, Ellis performed alongside trumpeter and bandleader Maynard Ferguson. At the time Ferguson’s band served as a revolving door for a long list of up-and-comers, like pianist Joe Zawinul, drummer Frankie Dunlop, trombonist Slide Hampton and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who Ellis introduced to the band.
One of the earliest recordings of Don Ellis is on a track of Ferguson’s standard “Three More Foxes” from the LP titled Newport Suite, which is now part of a compilation of standards re-released by Blue Note in 2007 on the CD, Maynard Ferguson – Message From Birdland. Ellis went on to record with Charles Mingus and the George Russell Sextet, where he sided with reedman Eric Dolphy. At that point in his career, Ellis considered himself to be an iconoclast in his trumpet playing, not quite in sync with bebop, but in many ways more far reaching, a style he attributed tin part to the strong influences of trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Rex Stewart. His strong interest in avant-garde harmonics stemmed from his association with Russell, Dolphy and Mingus, and with composer and pianist Jaki Byard whom Ellis knew in Boston and later with Ferguson’s band.
Together, they coined their avant-garde style of jazz as the “New Thing.” While Ellis enjoyed being a part of the movement, he had other ambitions, and so he jumped at the invite to be the lead chair for one week in Stan Kenton’s Orchestra. From 1960 to 1962, Ellis led and recorded a number of small group sessions, culminating with the LP Essence, released by Pacific. The album featured the syncopated bebop track “Ostinato” that he wrote in the Army band and received critical acclaim.
Over the next few years, Ellis concentrated on expanding his musical foundation, traveling to Europe from 1962 to early 1963. By then he had earned a mixed bag of reviews from being a true innovator to putting experimentation and technique before musical style. He returned to New York and put together a diverse jazz ensemble called the Improvisational Workshop Orchestra, a band partly inspired by Stan Kenton and his modernistic arrangements that made excursions into Rock and modal Eastern music. Ellis’ orchestra struggled through a period of big band decline, and he ended up making ends meet playing in the jazz-soloist chair of the band led by trumpeter Ralph Marterie.
Ever restless and striving for new form, Ellis moved to Los Angeles in 1964 and started working on a Masters Degree in ethnomusicology at the University of California. Here he met sitar player Harihar Rao, a student of Ravi Shankar. After being awarded a Rockefeller Grant, Ellis went on to study musical time signatures at State University of New York (SUNY) in Buffalo for one year where he reemerged in the New Thing movement starring in “Third Stream” projects spearheaded by composer Gunther Schuller. Ellis also performed at the Lincoln Center for Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts series, and with the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein conducting.
He returned to LA and formed a small ensemble with Harihar Rao called the Hindustani Jazz Sextet, a popular LA group that never recorded but was the first such meeting of Indian and jazz musicians in the US. The sextet soared through notable performances as the opening act for rock bands like the Grateful Dead. They also worked with Stan Kenton’s Neophonic Orchestra performing a composition titled “Synthesis” that stemmed from a collaboration between composer and arranger Hank Levy and Ellis. The sextet eventually evolved into a larger rehearsal band formed from students and other musicians that Ellis knew in the LA area.
By 1965, Ellis’ trumpet solos had evolved as well into a blend of flowing chromatic tonality and note-bending expression, which he constantly sought to improve. He had studied the twelve-tone orchestral compositions by Pavel Blatny, a noted jazz and symphonic composer in Czechoslovakia, and had learned that Blatny had written an etude for a quartertone trumpet. Ellis talked brass instrument designer Larry Ramirez of the Lebanc-Holton Company into building a trumpet that incorporated a fourth valve that opened a short ring modulator extension, producing a quartertone shift in lower pitch.
The quartertone trumpet, along with an electric mouthpiece, became Don Ellis’ signature horn, the beacon at the head of the new Don Ellis Orchestra that premiered that same year. No holds barred, Ellis’s band would appear on stage with four drummers (including Ellis) on one night and then four bassists on the next. Comprised of established LA musicians and student wonders, the band also tapped national and internationally known performers, like Sam Falzone on woodwinds and John Klemmer on sax, and the Bulgarian pianist Milcho Leviev.
The one thing all of these musicians shared was a willingness to invest in Ellis’ inventiveness. This was where the use of new meters came to life. He found a way to enable the band to master complex time signatures, ranging from 7/4 to 17/8 to 27/16 and so on, influenced by South Asian and Eastern European music.
The orchestra released its first recording made during the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival after they had captivated the mostly Californian audience. For jazz mainstreamers on the east coast, the music had a less than warm reception. But the orchestra’s future was secured due to its vast appeal to the open-minded generation of the 1960s.
Ellis signed with Columbia records in 1967 and enjoyed a successful run of tours and album releases. Over these years, new electronics would be tested and thrown out. Instrumentation would expand to French horns, tubas, bassoons, strings and even a vocal quartet. Arguably, the orchestra tested the limits of Jazz, and perhaps over-tested as some critics felt. Maynard Ferguson once said about Ellis, “He put experimentation before entertainment.”
Heart problems plagued Ellis by the mid-1970s. Yet kept on experimenting and in doing so, he taught and inspired a generation of student musicians that jazz was alive, even amid a long drought in the music’s popularity. He won a Grammy Award in 1972 for Best Instrumental Arrangement for his score in the 1971 Academy Award winning picture, “The French Connection.”
Don Ellis died on December 17, 1978 from a heart attack at his home in Studio City California. He was 44.
How Time Passes, Candid, 1960
Out of Nowhere, (recorded in 1961) Candid 1988
New Ideas Prestige, 1961
Essence, Pacific Jazz, 1962; re-released in 2005 by Mighty Quinn
Don Ellis Orchestra Live at Monterey, Pacific Jazz, 1966
Electric Bath, Columbia, 1967
Shock Treatment, Columbia, 1968
Don Ellis at Fillmore, Columbia, 1970
Tears of Joy, Columbia, 1971
Live at Montreux, Atlantic, 1977
The French Connection / French Connection II, (recorded in 1972) Film Score Monthly 2001
Contributor: Dave Krikorian