William Ellis: Music On A Chink Of Light
"I'd been lucky enough to photograph some major figures there like Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, Julian Lloyd Webber, the cellist, and Burl Ives, believe it or not! All these amazing characters; a lot of them have left us now. It gave me a taste for performance photography. I was in my early 20s, and it kind of got under my skin a bit."
Ellis would soon all but abandon photography, only to take it up some years later, inspired by another passion: "I left photography for a while until my late twenties, when I started getting into jazz seriously. My feel for the music came from Frank Sinatra, Count Basie's orchestra and all those tremendous orchestrations my mother played on the radio. Then I got into Miles."
The turning point, however, was in '89, when Ellis read that Miles Davis [left] was coming to play in England. "I just had to go and see him, though I never thought I'd be able to photograph him. I was scrabbling all over Manchester with my contacts to get accreditation to shoot, and I couldn't. Everybody wanted to shoot Miles Davis."
Ellis eventually tracked down the promoter, who was obviously impressed with the fact that Ellis had actually paid for his tickets for both nights. A compliment slip was left for Ellis to collect at the booking office, and he had the necessary permission to photograph Miles. Getting in was one thing, getting a picture which would set him apart from all the other photographers was another.
As Ellis is the first to admit, an element of luck can play a part in the capturing of a photograph, without a doubt. "In this situation with Miles, there's a strong side light coming in from Miles' right, which creates drama and strength. The stance of the subject is very direct, confrontational almost. That was lucky that light was there, he stood there like that, and I saw it. "
Ellis' photograph of Miles was used for the program of the trumpeter's concert in Glasgow the following year. "That's what opened all the doors," explains Ellis. "If you get the chance you take it. That gave me some credibility and the accreditation to shoot at jazz events and festivals and get other things rolling. I started to get work and commissions. From there I was able to build up the archivethe body of work of all the other great musiciansso thank you, Miles."
Since that evening at the Manchester Apollo over 20 years ago, Ellis has come a very long way. In the last year alone, he has photographed all the major jazz festivals in the UK, and has also clicked his shutter at festivals in Bremen, Mexico, New York, Hong Kong, Cuba, Ireland and Malaysia. Then there is all the stuff that happens in between, like organizing exhibitions and giving seminars.
Needless to say, in the last two decades, Ellis has photographed a lot of the greats in jazz, both historical and contemporary, and he talks of his profession as a privilege which he never takes for granted. "How could you ever meet these people?" enthuses Ellis, shaking his head slowly in wonder. "Louie Bellson, Clark Terry, Jimmy Heathit just amazes me."
These days, Ellis is in demand around the world, but in the early years before invitations to festivals like Cape Town or artist-in-residence status at North Sea Jazz became the norm, Ellis would drive 500 miles from Manchester to Glasgow in an evening to photograph Bobby King or Dizzy Gillespie and then drive 500 back.
"You've got to be determined and you only get out of it what you put in. It's very much a case of paying your dues, and I still am. You should take nothing for granted, but have a presence, a respect for yourself and the pictures you've shot over the years, and for who you've photographed."
The respect that Ellis has for his subjects can be measured not only by how he always shoots with permission, but by the way he talks about the musicians: "I remember some years ago photographing Albert King in Glasgow, and he was in a wheelchair; he gets up, picks up his Flying V and just plays the life out of it, then gets back in his chair and then they wheel him back out. Clark Terry, the same; I photographed him at Birdland a couple of years ago, and again they wheeled him in, he got up, picked up his horn and he was a different man. That's what music can do. I'm still blown away just by being within ten feet of these people."