He’s played with them all—bar groups, college bands, big bands at the end of their exciting era, great jazz trios, popular vocalists, studio bands and top-rated television shows. Since 1941, guitarist Herb Ellis has demonstrated a level of playing that is remarkable both for its consistency of swinging rhythm and inventive solo work. Largely self-taught, the guitarist developed commanding technique and sensitivity. Thus armed, the versatile player could help drive the Oscar Peterson Trio through some of its most up-tempo tunes, accompany Ella Fitzgerald on the most tender ballad or contribute to a demanding recording or television studio scene.
Ellis began playing harmonica and banjo at an early age, but switched when he was eight or nine years old to guitar, spending much of his free time practicing. By the time he entered North Texas State College in 1939, long before that school became the mecca for jazz students, Ellis came under the spell of Charlie Christian, the great guitar innovator whose solos and compositions contributed so much to the Benny Goodman band in 1939-41. Christian’s single-string amplified solos changed jazz guitar for all time; his strong rhythm guitar was often overlooked, but not by Ellis. Also enrolled at North Texas State were such upcoming jazz luminaries as reedman Jimmy Giuffre, composer/trumpeter Gene Roland, and bassist Harry Babasin.
Leaving college in 1941, Ellis joined a band of players from the University of Kansas, stayed with them for about six months, then moved to Kansas City, Missouri, for a period of seasoning during which he developed his style. There he played in the various clubs that remained intact from the seminal days of KC jazz. His session mates there included an emerging Charlie Parker, in his pre-bop mode. The big dance bands were still in vogue when Ellis joined Glen Gray and the Casa Lorna Orchestra, an established band with jazz overtones, in 1944. Here he met pianist Lou Carter, with whom he switched to the more popular band of Jimmy Dorsey. Soon bassist/violinist Johnny Frigo joined this band.
Ellis remained with Dorsey through 1947, traveling and recording extensively, and playing in dance halls and movie palaces. Then came a dramatic turnabout that changed Ellis’s career forever. As pianist Lou Carter told this writer in a 1996 interview, “The Dorsey band had a six-week hole in the schedule. The three of us had played together some with the big band. John Frigol, who had already left the band, knew the owner of the Peter Stuyvesant Hotel in Buffalo. We went in there and
For the Record…
Born Mitchell Herbert Ellis August 4, 1921, in Farmersviller TX; father Clifford; mother, Martha Kennedy; married Patti Gahagan, 1956; children: Kari, Mitchell; still musically active, now living in Fairfield Bay, Arkansas.
Began playing banjo, switched to guitar by age nine; attended North Texas State College, 1939-41; moved to Kansas City, MO, where he played the nightclub circuit; joined Glen Gray’s Casa Loma Orchestra, 1943-44; moved to band of Jimmy Dorsey, late 1944-47; formed Soft Winds instrumental/vocal trio, 1947-53; joined Oscar Peterson Trio, 1953-58; accompanied Ella Fitzgerald and Julie London, 1959; film, radio, and television studio work in Los Angeles, including shows of Steve Alien, Danny Kayer Della Reese, 1960s; changed to mostly night club and concert work in 1970s and 1980s; remains active on selected basis.
Awards: Grammy Award for “The Legendary Oscar Peterson Trio Live at the Blue Note,” 1990.
stayed six months. And that’s how the Soft Winds were born.”
The Soft Winds were an elegant musical trio of kindred souls. Ellis, Carter and Frigo, who then played violin only occasionally, but who has laid aside his bass in recent years to become perhaps the premier jazz violinist, developed an enduring vocal and jazz trio style. The band’s sound is sometimes compared to the more popular Page Cavanaugh Trio, a commercially successful group that hesitantly played opposite the Winds in one concert setting. The Soft Winds remained together until 1953, never quite achieving a level of success that their musicality deserved. Their records for Majestic stressed the unison vocal arrangements in their repertoire, often ignoring the swinging, tasteful jazz offerings heard in live performances. “We played six nights a week and practiced five days a week,” averred both Ellis and Carter, in developing their fugal, contrapuntal head arrangements.
One frequent sitter-in on the Buffalo stint was pianist Oscar Peterson, who usually joined in on Sunday nights, when his trio’s Toronto gigs were precluded by the existing “blue laws.” When the Soft Winds began to dissolve with Frigo’s leaving, and the Peterson Trio needed a top guitarist to replace Barney Kessel, Peterson approached Ellis. From 1953-58 the Oscar Peterson Trio wrote chapters of jazz history that still resound through concert halls, night clubs and recording studios. With leader Peterson and Ellis, plus all-world bassist Ray Brown, the trio became perhaps the most-sought-after, most-recorded, and for most critically praised unit of its era. As Scott Yanow wrote in the All-Music Guide to Jazz, the group “was one of the great piano trios of all time. It was never so much a matter of Peterson having two other musicians accompany him as it was that they could meet the pianist as near-equals and consistently inspire him. And unlike most trios, O.P.’s had many arranged sections that constantly needed rehearsals and were often quite dazzling.”
Canadian musician/disc jockey Don Warner has often related stories of these three great musicians pushing one another during live gigs in a way that kept their music constantly fresh and swinging. As Ellis recalled of this period: “It was probably the highlight of my career to play with those guys—they’re the best on their respective instruments. We had a lot of really difficult arrangements. Oscar wrote really hard for us. We’d have to memorize everything. Oscar’s a mental giant, you know, and he never forgot anything. He’d give me stuff to play and I’d say, I can’t play this, Oscar.’ He’d say, ‘Yes, you can; I know how much you can play.’ I’d go practice and, sure enough, he’d be right every time.”
In addition to their great live and recorded work as the Oscar Peterson Trio, this unit served as the virtual “house rhythm section” for Norman Grant’s Verve records, supporting the likes of tenormen Ben Webster and Stan Getz, as well as trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, and Sweets Edison and other jazz stalwarts. They were also the mainstays of Grant’s Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts as they swept the jazz world, constantly touring the United States and Europe. Ellis left the Peterson Trio in November 1958, to be replaced not by a guitarist, but by drummer Ed Thigpen, perhaps an admission that his shoes could not be filled.
In 1959 and 1960 Ellis toured with the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald and briefly with Julie London, the actress/singer who hit the charts with “Cry Me A River.” Tired of touring, Ellis settled in the Los Angeles area to begin a longcareer working in the movie, recording, and television studios. Among the television shows on which Ellis was a major player were those headlined by Steve Allen, Regis Philbin, Danny Kaye, Red Skelton, Joey Bishop, Della Reese, and Merv Griffin. Of this period, Down Beat writer Leonard Feather wrote: “Philbin had the most jazz-oriented house group…, Terry Gibbs’. In fact it was composed entirely of jazz musicians, [including] guitarist Ellis, the only holdover from the Allen show and still one of the great swingers of any decade.” Ellis also played on countless film scores during his decade in Los Angeles. Near the end of the 1960s Ellis longed for some additional opportunities to exercise his jazz skills more fully.
In the 1970s Ellis embarked on a venture that only the most secure artists would dare attempt. He teamed up with other prominent jazz guitarists in a series of duo performances, first individually with Joe Pass and Barney Kessel, then later in a guitar trio format. Ellis, Kessel and Charlie Byrd became The Great Guitars, and in these various configurations Ellis concertized and recorded widely. Ellis performed on the first three recordings of Concord, the prestigious jazz label. Later he teamed up with guitarists Freddie Green, the mainstay of the Count Basie rhythm section, and Laurindo Almeida, the Stan Kenton import, who bridges the jazz and symphonic worlds as well. In addition, Ellis has recorded albums with bassist Ray Brown, reedman Jimmy Giuffre, violinist Stuff Smith, tenor legend Coleman Hawkins, plus a tribute to his mentor, “Hello, Charlie Christian.” He has also recorded video instructional tapes.
Ellis continues to perform in handpicked settings, mostly at jazz parties and festivals. After a 37-year affair with one Gibson guitar, he now plays the custom Gibson Herb Ellis model, the ES165. “I love to play,” states Ellis, and often he will freelance, picking up a good group of fellow-swingers for special occasions. One very special event developed in November, 1995, on a jazz cruise. Here the Soft Winds were re-united, with Frigo now playing violin exclusively and Keter Betts sitting in on bass. “None of us had played together for forty years,” related Carter. “We got up on the bandstand of the Norway without any rehearsal and swung our butts off!” When originally together, the three musicians had collaborated on at least two songs that enjoyed moderate popularity and are still played today: “I Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out!” and “Detour Ahead.”
In his book The Jazz Guitarists, Stan Britt sums up Ellis’s contributions in this way: “Throughout all his musical ventures—on-record or otherwise—Ellis evidences the kind of strong consistency and lasting commitment that has made him something of a legend amongst guitarists.” And in a 1992 Down Bear “Blind-fold Test,” guitar icon Les Paul reacted to an Ellis/Pass record in this way: “You get Joe Pass all by himself and he can pretty well stun ya…. And the same thing with Herb Ellis. If you’re not swinging, he’s gonna make you swing. Of that whole bunch of guys who play hollow-body guitar on the front pickup, I think Herb Ellis has got the most drive.”
At Zardis’, Pablo, 1955.
Oscar Peterson Plays Count Basie, Clef, 1955.
At the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, Verve, 1956.
Nothing But the Blues, Verve, 1958.
Jazz at Concord, Concord, 1973.
Seven Come Eleven, Concord, 1973.
The Legendary Oscar Peterson Trio: Saturday Night at the Blue Note, Telarc, 1990.
Roll Call, Justice, 1991.
Texas Swings, Justice, 1992.
Berendt, Joachim E., The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to Fusion and Beyond, Lawrence Hill and Company, 1982.
Britt, Stan, The Jazz Guitarists, Blandford Press Ltd., 1984.
Erlewine, Michael, et al, eds., All Music Guide to Jazz, Miller Freeman Books, 1996.
Feather, Leonard, The New Edition of the Encyclopedia of Jazz, Bonanza Books, 1965.
Coda, April 1, 1980.
Down Beat, May 6, 1965; August 1991; April 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from interviews with Lou Carter, December 2, 1996, and Herb Ellis, December 17, 1996.
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