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Herb Ellis 1921 - 2010

July 1, 2010
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A DIRECT DISCIPLE OF THE CHARLIE Christian school, Herb Ellis’ driving, swinging, 6-string style was imbued with an inherent bluesiness that spoke of his Texas roots. A member of Oscar Peterson’s celebrated trio of the 1950s, Ellis is also best remembered for his collaborations with fellow guitarist Joe Pass, violinist Stuff Smith, vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, and for his stint during the 1970s in Great Guitars, a group he formed in 1974 with Barney Kessel and Charlie Byrd. Ellis died at his home in Los Angeles on March 28, 2010 at age 88.

Born in Farmersville, Texas on August 4, 1921, Mitchell Herbert Ellis played banjo and harmonica as a child before picking up the guitar. He first heard pioneering electric guitarist Charlie Christian in 1941 while studying music at North Texas State University, where he also met and became influenced by fellow student Jimmy Guiffre, who would become a renownedsaxophonist/composer/arranger during the 1950s. Guitarist George Barnes, whom he had heard on the radio, was also an influence on Ellis during his early woodshedding years in Texas.

In 1943, Ellis joined Glen Gray’s Casa Loma Orchestra. Although he had cut some tracks with Gray’s touring band, Ellis’ first recordings as a soloist were with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, among them “Perdido” and “J.D.’s Jump.” Ellis remained with the Dorsey band through 1947 before forming the trio Soft Winds with Dorsey bandmates Lou Carter on piano and Johnny Frigo on bass. Patterned after the popular Nat King Cole Trio of the day (featuring guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince), Soft Winds stayed together until 1950, recording 16 tracks for the Majestic and Mercury labels in 1947 and 1949, respectively. Ellis would often revisit one of the group’s more popular tunes, “Detour Ahead,” later in his career.

From 1953 to 1958, Ellis was a key component in pianist Oscar Peterson’s first classic trio (with bassist Ray Brown). They recorded frequently for Verve and were also favorites on Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic concert tours, where they invariably lit up the house with burning renditions of signature Christian tunes like “Air Mail Special” and “7 Come 11.” During the late ’50s, a remarkably productive period for the guitarist, Ellis also recorded with such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Louis Armstrong. His first recording as a leader, Ellis in Wonderland, came in 1956 for Verve and featured his former North Texas State schoolmate Guiffre on saxophone alongside trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, bassist Ray Brown, pianist Oscar Peterson, and drummer Alvin Stoller. Ellis’ playing on his original “Sweetheart Blues” is steeped in Charlie Christian’s legato, horn-like phrasing while his boppish “Pogo” has more of the bluesy, bent-string urgency that characterized a lot of his playing. That same year as Ellis’ auspicious debut, he also played on the classic Verve album Ella and Louis, which brought the two hugely influential jazz vocalists together in the studio for the first time. (Ellis also appeared on the 1957 follow up, Ella and Louis Again).

After a year on the road with Ella Fitzgerald, from 1959 to 1960, Ellis moved to Los Angeles, where he stayed busy with studio work for 15 years, including a lengthy stint on The Merv Griffin Show. His L.A. session work during this period ranged wildly from Peggy Lee to Screaming Jay Hawkins, Randy Newman, Andre Previn, Lou Rawls, and Buddy Rich while his own output as a leader included such potent recordings as Thank You, Charlie Christian [Verve], Herb Ellis Guitar [Columbia] and Man with the Guitar [Dot]. He also formed a working partnership with violinist Stuff Smith, releasing Together! in 1963. That same year he joined with guitarists Laurindo Almeida and Johnny Gray for Three Guitars in Bossa Nova Time, a kind of predecessor of Great Guitars.

In 1970, Ellis had his first reunion with Oscar Peterson on Hello Herbie (with bassist Sam Jones and drummer Bobby Durham), which featured blues-inflected renditions of “Seven Come Eleven” and Wes Montgomery’s “Naptown Blues.” He later joined with Pass, bassist Brown, and drummer Jake Hanna for a performance at the 1973 Concord Jazz Festival. A live recording of that gig, which included Ellis originals “Good News Blues” and “Bad News Blues,” was subsequently issued as Jazz/Concord, the very first release by Carl Jefferson’s Concord Jazz label. The following year, Ellis joined with fellow guitarists Barney Kessel and Charlie Byrd for an exciting live recording at the Concord Jazz Festival, launching the Great Guitars trio (with Joe Byrd on bass and John Rae on drums). Their swinging chemistry was reprised on a series of Concord recordings, culminating with 1980’s Great Guitarists at the Winery. During the ’70s, Ellis also continued his working relationship with Pass, releasing Seven Come Eleven and the stunning duo album Two For The Road, both on Concord. And in 1975, Ellis joined with Count Basie’s longtime rhythm guitarist Freddie Green on the Concord recording Rhythm Willie, which also featured Brown, Hanna, and pianist Ross Tompkins.

In 1988, Ellis joined with bassist Red Mitchell for the superb duo outing on Concord, Doggin’ Around. Then in March 1990 he reunited again with Oscar Peterson for a weeklong engagement at the Blue Note nightclub in New York. Four live CDs were subsequently released on the Telarc label documenting this celebrated gig. In the ’90s, Ellis switched to the Austin, Texas-based Justice Records label and appeared on a string of swinging releases, including 1990’s Just Friends: A Gathering in Tribute to Emily Remler, 1991’s Down-Home, 1992’s Roll Call with Wes Montgomery’s original organist Melvin Rhyne and featuring Herb’s Soft Winds bandmate Johnny Frigo (who had since switched from bass to violin), and 1993’s Texas Swings, a paean to Western Swing featuring Willie Nelson, violinist Johnny Gimble, pianist Floyd Domino, and pedal-steel ace Herb Remington. His last recording was An Evening with Herb Ellis on the Jazz Focus label, documenting a 1995 performance at Western Washington University.

In his final years, Ellis suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, which robbed him of his ability to play. But his finer days were fondly recalled on the 2003 Concord compilation Arrival, which combined his two recordings from the early ’70s with Pass. As Ellis once said of his erstwhile 6-string partner: “We could play two improvised lines at the same time, and it would come out as if someone had stayed up all night and written it out. It’s uncanny—the involvement, the harmonization, the counterpoint—the kind of stuff we would get into.”

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