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 Barney Kessel?
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 of?
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 taught?
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