A few weekends ago I was watching reruns of the old Ed Sullivan Show on my local PBS station, when who should appear but Don Ellis. I had been a bit of an Ellis fan in my rock-influenced teenage years, and it was interesting and a bit surreal to suddenly see him on my television screen leading his big band, dressed in full sixties sartorial regalia.
During the end of the 1960s and into the ‘70s, Ellis led a big band that fused the full, imaginatively voiced arrangements of the Stan Kenton band with the electronics of rock music. Ellis played a four-valve trumpet, which enabled him to make extensive use of microtones. This allowed him to color his trumpet work with notes not available to conventional trumpet players, and his playing often contained flashes of Indian and Arabic scales. But the tall, blonde, white Ellis had not come from nowhere. He had worked with a variety of big bands, including those led by Claude Thornhill, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, and Maynard Ferguson. He also played with the George Russell sextet, working there with none other than Eric Dolphy. By the early ‘60s he was leading his own groups, mixing elements of straight ahead post-bop jazz, free improvisation, and European concert music both old and new. His recording New Ideas, which featured Al Francis, Jaki Byard, Ron Carter, and Charlie Persip, still sounds fresh today. Ellis had his own trumpet sound and was often an inspired improviser. His next recording, Essence (recorded in 1962), has never been reissued, which is a shame since it features Ellis with Paul Bley and Gary Peacock.
By 1966, though, Ellis had changed his direction considerably. He had decided to form a big band in order to perform music that might appeal more to a younger audience, but he continued to experiment. In particular he was working with odd time signatures such as 11/4 or 19/4. That the band was able to negotiate such strange rhythmic metres with ease while still swinging demonstrates both the caliber of musician that Ellis was able to recruit as well as his dedication to perfection. The band was indeed a large one, sometimes featuring more than one drummer and/or bassist as well as a full compliment of five trumpets, three trombones, and five saxophones. Like Kenton, Ellis realized that the big band could be broken down into smaller units and often his arrangements featured such chamber ensembles. The band’s first two recordings, Live at Monterey and Live in 3 2/3 4 Time, were live, making the group’s precision all the more impressive. In 1967, the group released its first studio effort, Electric Bath, which caused a sensation and has recently been remastered and reissued. Ellis also began to incorporate electronics such as ring modulators and echoplex, which were often added to his trumpet. Followup albums included Shock Treatment, the excellent Autumn, and two fantastic live sets, Live at Fillmore and Tears of Joy.
When Electric Bath was released in 1967, another famous jazz trumpet player was also embarking on a change of sound that would have an enormous impact on the future of jazz music. That trumpeter was, of course, Miles Davis, who released the landmark In a Silent Way in 1969, a full two years after Electric Bath. In 1970 Davis released Bitches Brew, a justly celebrated album that signaled a new age of jazz music, one that incorporated free jazz, rock, Eastern sounds, and more. Both Davis and Ellis were on the rock circuit that year, with Davis playing both Fillmore East and West, opening for rock bands such as Steve Miller, The Band, and Laura Nyro. Even though Electric Bath is a big band album, there are some ways in which Ellis seems to have beaten Davis to the punch as far as incorporating rock elements into his music. The Ellis band also dressed the part, wearing brightly colored clothing best characterized as “hippy” attire when Davis and his second quintet (featuring Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams) were still playing in suits. In addition, Ellis’s band seems to have met with unbridled enthusiasm when they played to rock crowds, while the same audiences often seemed befuddled by Miles’s dense electric soup. Yet, today Ellis has largely been relegated to jazz music’s back pages, while Davis’s reputation soars. Of course, Davis’s reputation is well-deserved without question—-he changed the face of jazz music several times and negotiated the changing times and vagaries of the music business from the 1940s right up until his death in 1991. However, the few recordings currently available from the Ellis catalog demonstrate that his music, too, was complex, interesting, ahead of its time, and that he himself was an excellent trumpet player and skilled improviser. Why, then, does he maintain only cult status among jazz music devotees?