Don Ellis, Dave Douglas, and the 'Progression' of Jazz


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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.
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?

I thought of all this in conjunction with Stanley Crouch's controversial piece in the April 2003 issue of JazzTimes, titled "Putting the White Man In Charge." In that column Crouch postulates the existence of a white jazz critical establishment, one that, having used the black musician as a way of rebelling against its members' middle-class backgrounds, now promotes white musicians whose work pulls in elements from outside the jazz tradition as a way of rebelling against the black musicians that they formerly championed. As proof of this, Crouch offers up Dave Douglas, who he presents as a decent trumpet player who has been promoted well out of his league by this critical establishment. Crouch argues that, as an improviser, Douglas could not possibly hold his own next to such current black trumpet players as Terence Blanchard, Roy Hargrove, and Nicholas Payton in any style. (It's possible Crouch may not feel quite so inclined to promote Hargrove and Payton as examples now, as both of them have released albums that utilize elements of hip-hop, soul, and R&B, which is just as disturbing to Crouch as the incursion of progressive European elements into jazz.)

Like Ellis, Douglas has had a long and varied career to date, playing with many top musicians, both live and on recordings. Following stints at Boston's Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory, Douglas went to New York, where he studied with the great teacher Carmine Caruso. After a stint in Europe with Horace Silver, Douglas returned to New York and began his recording career, working with a variety of groups. One of these, the Tiny Bell Trio, he has described as a "jazz-Balkan improv" group. Certainly Douglas has been influenced by the folk music of Eastern Europe, as well as by classical music, and the jazz of the 1960s, including avant-garde, free improvisation, and the early incorporation of electronics. His recent series of recordings for RCA/Bluebird, including Witness, The Infinite, and the recently released Freak In have shown him continuing to pull outside influences and styles into his jazz work. In many respects, Douglas has much in common with Don Ellis: interest in a wide array of musical styles, a strong work ethic, a gift for composition, a distinctive trumpet style. But unlike Ellis, Douglas has found his work met with a great deal of interest and critical acclaim. It is in part this nearly universal acclaim of Douglas and his work on the part of the critical establishment that has Crouch crying foul. To him there is no question that Douglas is not a major trumpet player and that his playing does not hold up to scrutiny next to African-American contemporaries like Blanchard, Payton, Hargrove, or, of course, Wynton Marsalis. One reason for this is that Douglas is, from Crouch's perspective, playing music that is infused with elements that are from outside the African-American, blues-based jazz idiom. Crouch sees this as a subtle argument that jazz only advances as it picks up progressive elements from European music. Indeed, the entire notion of "progression" is suspect with Crouch, and that is one area where I think he's definitely on to something. The idea that jazz "progressed" from collective New Orleans improvisation to larger swing bands to bebop, and so on, provides a nice framework for discussing jazz history, but that is all. There is nothing inherently more advanced about bebop than there is about early New Orleans jazz. But since the same language and set of post-modern ideas about art are usually used to discuss jazz, the progressive narrative is generally the one that is taken as gospel.

I agree that this is not necessarily the best way to look at the history of jazz music, but I don't think that Dave Douglas is to blame for this. Neither is Miles Davis, whom Crouch thoroughly disowned from the time of Bitches Brew on, and neither is Don Ellis, about whom I've never seen Crouch comment, but toward whom I doubt he would be inclined to be generous. Crouch's original column is nowhere near as incendiary as some would have you believe, and his dismissal by JazzTimes seems like a bit of overreaction, but there are supposedly other reasons why Crouch was dismissed, and few of us are privy to the details of that relationship. I think that what is relevant, and what Crouch really hit on, is the fact that the critical jazz establishment has become, to a large extent, an adjunct marketing tool for the record labels and their artists. This is one of the reasons that we see the same cover stories, or variations of them, in every one of the major jazz magazines month after month, why the same records are universally reviewed favorably and others dismissed or ignored. It should be noted that this is scarcely a new phenomenon, as pointed out by French writer, jazz critic, and trumpeter Boris Vian, who said: "The critic's simple soul needs to discover genius; that's why fat old Hughes Panaissie makes a fool of himself ten times a year by declaring ten times a year, 'Whatshisname is incontrovertibly the greatest...'" It's true, hopefully, that the best recordings will be recognized as such by a majority of jazz writers, but there is so seldom a dissenting voice as to seem strange. After all, this is a group of people who often find it difficult to settle on a current working definition of the term "jazz," so how likely is it that they should all agree on who is doing the best recorded work at any given time?

Crouch uses this observation to postulate the existence of a white critical jazz establishment that is now rebelling against the African-American elements in jazz, seeking to replace them with more "progressive" European elements. I would say that the real answer may be just as sinister, but is not specifically a racial problem, nor even specifically a jazz problem. Record labels push artists that they believe can sell recordings. Even in jazz, which reportedly represents only some 2% of all recordings purchased, there is a need to promote and move product. Naturally, magazines and other outlets want to write about that which people are most interested in reading about, and that is most likely to be what is selling the best. And what is selling the best is, of course, what is being promoted the most. Writers need to write about artists and music that editors are looking for stories about, and so Dave Douglas turns up on the cover of every jazz publication over the course of a year.

I'm not denying that most jazz writers are white and come from middle-class backgrounds. But that does not seem, to me, to be the main source of the problems that Crouch is citing. I happen to think that Douglas is a solid composer and arranger with interesting musical ideas, and that he is a good trumpet player who presents a compelling range of improvisational ideas and has a solid technical command of his instrument. He is not always exciting to listen to, and sometimes his music, like some of Ellis's, can suffer from the feeling that it is overly conceptual and lacking in spontaneity. But I do not think that a cadre of white jazz writers has decided to put Douglas at the top of the heap of current jazz musicians at the expense of black musicians. Certainly black musicians such as Greg Osby, Jason Moran, and Matthew Shipp have also been written about favorably by a majority of jazz critics, and they have, at times, been promoted with the same fervor as Douglas. I also ask this: if this controlling group of white critics has been pushing jazz into more "progressive" and European-influenced formats for the past several decades, then what happened to Don Ellis, who, far from being promoted above his abilities, never really seems to have gotten his due? Where was this white critical establishment then?

Perhaps Crouch would argue that during the late '60s and early '70s jazz critics were still rebelling against their middle-class upbringings by embracing black musicians at the expense of white musicians and that Ellis came along at an inopportune time. That seems like a pretty twisted argument. There are a lot of probable reasons why Ellis's legacy faltered: his infatuation with rock music and its trappings, his extensive use of electronics, the esoteric nature of some of his music, his use of the big band format, the ill health that sidelined him around 1974 as well as the heart attack that finally took his life. Miles went silent for five years, but he was able to return and forge a new phase of his career, and his star grew continually brighter right up until his death in 1991. Don Ellis died in 1978 and the Ellis group disbanded. Most of his recordings went out of print, and he began to be forgotten. Fortunately, there has been a resurgence of interest in his life and music, and some of his most influential recordings are being reissued.

Ellis wrote an interesting essay entitled "The Element of 'Corn' In Jazz Improvisation" ("corn" relating to "corny" or unfashionable playing) in 1959. He actually touches on the idea that new, "hip" music cannot be considered necessarily more progressive or advanced than that which came before. "The question which must be answered," says Ellis, "is: can music which is genuinely heartfelt ever be 'corny?' And my answer is no, it can only be, at worst, awkward...I submit that 'corn' in art comes from doing something because it seems fashionable at the time...It is my contention that the jazz musician can be deeper and much more valuable if he will play according to the dictates of HIS heart, and if he will strive to incorporate the WHOLE of jazz in his work. Playing this way he need never worry about being 'corny.'"

Photo Credit Dave Douglas by Chris Hovan

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