BORN IN MCKINNEY, TEXAS, IN 1921, Herb Ellis’ first influence was the late Charlie Christian—the pioneer of electric jazz guitar. After graduating from Texas State College in 1941, Ellis joined the Glen Gray Orchestra. Herb’s guitar was subsequently featured with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra on several hits, such as “Perdido” and “J.D.’s Jump.” From 1953 to 1958, Herb performed in pianist Oscar Peterson’s trio (with bassist Ray Brown), and, after a year on the road with Ella Fitzgerald, he settled down to a career as a Los Angeles session player. For six years, he was a familiar face on the set of The Merv Griffin Show as a member of the Mort Lindsey Orchestra.
What would you say are the differences
between playing with Joe Pass and playing with
Joe and I come from different places,
so we can put a little more emphasis on
interplay—the involvement, the harmonization,
the counterpoint. With Barney,
because we’re both from the same background,
we can start out playing lines
that are parallel or counter or crossing,
and we’ll wind up playing almost the
same phrase! It’s unreal. So the parts
Barney and I play together are more
arranged than when Joe and I play.
When you’re soloing, what are you thinking
I think of melodic content. I have no
formulas worked out—I just play from the
knowledge I have. Like, when you play a
Gb chord over a C chord, it’s two triads—
a Gb triad on top of a C triad. That’s where
we get the two tonics, and if you voice it
right, it’ll sound very pretty. But I never
think about that when I play. It’s all done
intuitively. All I think about is trying to
create a melody. I try not to think about
what scale I’m going to play for a G7 chord.
If you were backing a soloist in a tune where
the I chord is being played for four measures,
would you play inversions of the chord, or would
you play a variety of different chords?
I do both, but if the guy improvising
is going pretty good—and is playing a
pretty involved line—I would just play
on the I chord using inversions. I would
play sparsely, and the lines he’s playing
would sound good against the I chord
because of the tension caused by four
bars of the I chord. Now, if he’s playing
very few notes, and there are lots of spaces
in there, then I’d comp with different
chord patterns to fill it up and get a little
spark going. Playing background is an
art, and I think it’s sorely neglected. I see
groups on the stand, and I get the distinct
feeling that everybody is in business
for themselves. When they get a solo,
boy, that’s their time. After that, they may
play a lot of stuff behind the next soloist,
but they’re really not listening to what
the soloist is doing, and that irritates me.
I think that when you’re playing background
to someone, you should do your
best to help the guy who is soloing.
Do you think jazz improvisation can be
Well, the crafts and the tools—the
intellectual part of it—can certainly be
taught, and your technical ability can be
improved. But if you can’t move people,
then all that other stuff doesn’t count.
Excerpted from Arnie Berle’s piece in the
April 1978 Guitar Player
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