Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Ellis, Herb (Mitchel Herbert)

Herb Ellis's quick-picking right hand, fleet fingers and metronomic hard swing established him as a master of the modern jazz guitar in the 1950s. As a member of the Soft Winds Trio and then with pianist Oscar Peterson and bassist Ray Brown, he took the sound of the drummerless jazz trio to a higher plane.

Mitchel Herbert Ellis was born in Farmersville, Texas on August 4th, 1921. Encouraged by his parents, he began his self-taught musical development playing harmonica and on banjo, as did many guitarists of the Swing Era. He switched to guitar at age 7 after he heard George Barnes playing on the radio, then fell under the spell of Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt and Freddy Green in his teens. He also cites George Van Epps’ guitar method book as an early influence.

Ellis briefly attended North Texas University, then moved to Kansas City in1941 to find work as a guitarist. It was there that he heard and played with Charlie Parker, before the alto saxophonist achieved nationwide recognition. Ellis managed to land a job with Glen Gray’s Detroit-based Casa Loma Orchestra. He then moved on to a better paying gig with the Jimmy Dorsey band from 1945 to 1947.

It was in Jimmy Dorsey's band where he met pianist Lou Carter and bassist Johhny Frigo, who also played violin, and formed the Soft Winds Trio. When there was a six-week hole in the Dorsey band's touring schedule, Frigo secured a gig for the trio at the Peter Stuyvestant Hotel in Buffalo. The trio stayed there for six months, and ended up staying together for five years.

The song “Early Autumn," which had been a hit for the Woody Herman Orchestra with Stan Getz, was adapted by Soft Winds for the guitar/bass/piano format. The trio's tightly arranged unison lines between Ellis’s guitar and Carter’s piano foreshadow the formula Oscar Peterson and Ellis would later perfect.

The well-known jazz standard "Detour Ahead" is credited to Ellis and Frigo.The 1991 "Roll Call" reunion session, which featured Ellis and Frigo (on violin) as well as Mel Rhyne on hamond B3 and Jake Hannah on drums, features this song. Present right away on an embellished melody of the tune, played by its co-composer, Ellis, is his Texas blues approach to phrasing. His solo, after Frigo’s, presents the listener with the depth ofhis jazz guitar study: an active knowledge of the bebop vocabulary; elements of non-diatonicism; melodic inventiveness; all while never straying far from the blues.

Oscar Peterson was one of the many musicians whose ear was caught by the sound of the Soft Winds: "Soft Winds was playing at a hotel in Buffalo and had generated quite a buzz in Canada. They had built a big following in Buffalo and Toronto." Guitarist Barney Kessel urged Peterson to hire Ellis when his stipulated year of touring with the trio was up in 1953.

Peterson's trio toured extensively with Verve Records founder Norman Granz's "Jazz at the Philharmonic" roadshow, and served as a kind of house rhythm section for the all-star review. This experience, combined with Ellis's frighteningly perfect yet flexible time feel as an accompanist, led to opportunities to record and perform with other Granz associates, including saxophonists Ben Webster, with whom he recorded "Tenderly" in 1953, and Coleman Hawkins, singer Billie Holiday, trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, and Roy Eldridge and Stan Getz.

Not to be missed is the Oscar Peterson Trio's 1956 live album for Verve, At the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. On “52nd Street Theme,” the three musicians play their arrangement, consisting of an intentionally displaced call and response introduction, contrapuntal interludes, shout choruses, and of course solos, all at 352 beats per minute.

Ellis approached his solo on this track with concentration. He had to. Part of the arrangement was him having to weave in and out of improvising and through composed sections. He comes out of this live date sounding like a true professional recording artist, capable of superb results in a single take.

On the 1957 Verve album Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio, Ellis demonstrates in spades why why he is considered one of the great rhythm players in the history of swing guitar, possibly second only to Freddy Green. His straight, barely accented, four-on-the-floor rhythm guitar accompanying is laid down definitively on tracks such as “Pennies From Heaven.” He loosens up the groove allowing more rhythm guitar embellishments for the album’s opener, “I Want to be Happy.” This album serves as a kind of rhythm anthology, on which Ellis shows how much personality it is possible to put into a hard-swinging guitar.

Throughout the 1950s, in addition to playing with the Peterson Trio, Ellis recorded as a leader. His first record, “Ellis In Wonderland,” from 1956, showcases himself along with Peterson, Brown, Harry “Sweets” Edison and Jimmy Giuffre. Ellis’s deep understanding of guitar voicings and extended harmony can be heard here, on his slow burning interpretation of “It Could Happen To You.”

Ellis moved on to work with Ella Fitzgerald from 1958 to 1962, then worked as a session player in Los Angeles, before forming the group Great Guitars, with Barney Kessel and Charlie Byrd. Their 1973 recording of “Lover” features an aggressive Ellis, rapidl, picking his way through the difficult descending harmonic changes with great control, as the third soloist of the tune.

While living and working as a session player in Los Angeles, Ellis became the regular guitarist for the “Steve Allen Show.” This lead to more work with television orchestras on the shows of Regis Philbin, Danny Kaye, Red Skelton, Joey Bishop, Virginia Graham, Della reese, and the Mort Lindsay Orchestra of the “Merve Griffin Show.”

Guitarist Joe Pass, who worked as Oscar Peterson’s guitarist throughout the 1970s, would become Ellis’s substitute for the Griffin show, and it was through this connection that the two began working together. They recorded the album “Seven Come Eleven” in 1973 for Concord, which Ellis cites as one of his favorite sessions. It featured Charlie Christian’s title track at a blisteringly up tempo.

The two guitarists can be heard here asserting dominance over the tempo, with Ray Brown on Bass and Jake Hannah on drums. Pass and Ellis collectively improvised beautiful counterpoint, sometimes so attuned to each other, it is difficult to decipher one from the next.

The 1980s continued to find Ellis recording both as a leader and a sideman for the Concord label, with musicians such as Pass, Brown, Freddy Green, Red Mitchell and Monty Alexander. “Straight Ahead,” a 1981 Concord release, features Ellis, with Brown and Alexander. Their rendition of the standard “I Want to be Happy" takes us back to the 1957 session of which Ellis and Brown recorded the same tune with Peterson and Getz. Getz’s classic phrasing of this melody has worked its way into the spontaneous playing of Ellis here. Alexander’s piano playing invokes Peterson’s virtuosity, and of course, Brown is Brown.

The 1995 documentary film, Music In the Key of Oscar, displays the original trio of Peterson, Brown, and Ellis performing together after decades of being apart. Ellis, at age 74, can be seen taking a faithfully bluesy solo on Duke Ellington's "Caravan," amongst additional music, and interview footage.

Oscar Peterson summed up Ellis's prolific career in the following way: "Herby Ellis; a Texas boy who learned to play the blues. He had a very natural, flowing solo style, and a rhythmic sound and conception of time, the likes of which are hard to come by."

Herb Ellis has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but is living comfortably in Los Angeles. The Herb Ellis Signature ES-165 Guitar is made by Gibson.

Contributor: Paul Brady