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Dave Ellis: Of Jams and Jazz

By Published: January 4, 2005
AAJ: The "tradition?"

DE: Yeah, but people have a really limited view I think, when you say "tradition." It brings about the idea that current jazz artists are trying to re-create something that happened in the past, but I don't necessarily see it that way. Anyway, there are certainly differences between jazz and jam bands, but the similarities allowed me to bridge the gap.

One of the things that was spectacular, and I know I was very fortunate, is that I was like a rookie playing in the Super Bowl working with The Other Ones. The fans were so devastated by Jerry's death, and they hadn't had their fix of the Dead in years — and these people were used to monthly fixes, you know? But now years went by and they were losing it. So to be there in that real estate between Bob Weir and Bruce Hornsby, surrounded by that and the audience... I got a really unique perspective on what the whole thing was about.

For me, I grew up in Berkeley, and I honestly avoided the Dead like the plague when I was growing up. For somebody who was interested in jazz, that scene did not work, you know? The party was not something I was interested in. And to some extent, the Dead was an excuse to have a party. And the musical end of it was something I thought of as kind of lightweight. But there were a couple of times on tour — I don't remember where we were, but there were about 35,000 people out there, in a good mood, and picking up on the slightest swell in energy and creativity from the band. That is just a fascinating thing; it's a real phenomenon. You would look out on a sea of people, but it was all very friendly and calm, and positive. Man, I took my camera out on stage and started taking pictures of the audience!

And then a couple of those nights, Bruce Hornsby rendered a few of the Garcia and Robert Hunter tunes in a way that was more familiar to me, and I understood the value of those compositions. They're real songs, whether you play them acoustically or orchestrate them or whatever. I realized that although most of them didn't focus on being virtuosic on their instruments, these songs are timeless. I didn't understand that before. But it's an element in jazz that I find completely true. For me, that's great. I started playing jazz when I was ten, and I can go 'til I'm eighty and in a sense, I'll never be in style but I'll never be out of style. And in a way, the Dead is like that too. You either like it or you don't, but you can't deny it.

AAJ: You went to Berkeley High School, which has an almost legendary status in the jazz community. Was it like that when you were there? Did the reputation of the place have an impact on you?

DE: Yeah. I came there at a very interesting time. Phil Hardymon was the person who implemented the initial program; by "program" I mean his students started in fourth grade and by the time they finished high school, they were essentially pros. But Phil was a very special person. He knew how to recognize talent, he knew how to suggest instruments, he composed pieces for elementary school bands to introduce them to jazz and improvisation. He was kind and friendly to the fourth graders, but as they got older it got a little more intense and serious! But he was doing it all simultaneously.

I grew up — myself and Joshua Redman and our generation of guys — watching Benny Green, Craig Handy, Paul Hanson and these guys. When we were in elementary school, they were seniors. Their status was — and I still believe this, 'cause I have the tapes — the peak of the Berkeley High band. '77-'78-'79. The band was just ridiculous, especially relative to other groups. I mean, the lead trumpet player's hitting C above high G, and Bennie Green's like two years old and sounding Oscar Peterson already. You know, it's just not normal! But young guys and girls grow up seeing that — they came to Franklin elementary where we all were — and it blew us away, but we didn't realize that that's not a normal level to be at when you're a senior in high school! So that's what we aspired to.

Now, right when I got to Berkeley High, Phil Hardymon left because of health issues. That was a devastating thing for me, because this was my goal growing up. It wasn't football or anything else, just being in that jazz ensemble. At that time it would have represented an entire school career of practicing in anticipation of getting in this group. But then Charles Hamilton took over. And because of the legends of the past, my peers were as responsible as Charles was for remembering that tradition and continuing it. Because Charles was not Phil Hardymon, especially at that time. And so over the last 20 years, he and the students have had to re-establish Berkeley as a great place. I think the key to their success since Charles has taken over is building on the tradtion, and realizing that it's the students who must understand the level that is expected at the school. The quality mirrors the level of understanding by the students. Charles provides the atmosphere.

The growth has been incredible. I judged the high school competition at Monterey this year, which Berkeley High won for the first time in about 12 years. They're always in the finals but rarely win. This year it was unanimous, but this is the year that Berkeley High was not expected to win: they didn't have any virtuoso super-soloists, but the band came together as a unit. And Charles was just fantastic as a leader. I had a tear in my eye. It's come a long way. There have been a number of phases; some bands are much better than others over the course of a generation, but the focus on jazz as something that kids in school aspire to be good at has remained the same. You know, reputation carries its own weight, Sometimes the band was not so good, but that didn't hurt the reputation. Just look at how many professional musicians have come out of there.

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