In Memoriam: Herb Ellis (1921-2010)

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I met Herbie way before he joined Oscar Peterson, going back to at least 1953. Herb worked for me, and he also recorded with me a few times. He worked with me on the Steve Allen show—he and Barney Kessel would take turns. There was also a group with Buddy DeFranco and a tribute to Benny Goodman with Buddy and Herb. Herbie was not only a great soloist, he was the best guitarist for any rhythm section. Boy, could he comp. You wouldn't even need a pianist! And he knew I loved big bands. He would play like a big band, with all these big band figures, behind me. He had respect for me, too—he liked my playing. But most importantly, he was one of my good friends. Living on the road is when you get to know somebody. And I got to know him on the road. I once mentioned to an audience I was playing for, "Who do you think was on TV the longest?" All sorts of names were thrown at me—Merv Griffin, Steve Allen, Johnny Carson—but it was Herb actually. He went from the Steve Allen Show to the Della Reese Show to the Regis Philbin Show and on. When one show would end, he would be hired for the next show and then the show after that. I'm 85 now, and there aren't many people still around today that knew him. They may know the name, but not the person. He really had a great life. Goodness, he played with one of the greatest piano players that ever lived in Oscar Peterson and of course with bassist Ray Brown; he accompanied Ella and all the great singers. When you can do that.... Well, he was one of a kind. I'm going to miss him. He was a good guy.

—TERRY GIBBS, Vibraphonist

I first met Herb in 1978, when he took Ray Brown's recommendation to hire a 25-year-old kid who just got off Woody's band. We played together many times through the years including with Oscar Peterson's Quartet, which also included Ray. For me, it was like climbing into those classic recordings I'd grown up listening and playing to. After the group stomped through the first tune on the opening night, Herb turned around to me and saw that I was smiling from ear to ear. He said, "Well, did you like that?" I replied, "Oh yeah!" He then said, "Good... 'cause it ain't gonna get any better than this." His passing is a huge loss to all who were fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to hear him... let alone play with him. He always provided the spark and was always a team player with rhythm sections, making sure everyone was on the same wavelength. Fortunately, every time I hear his recordings, I'll have to grin knowing that he's leaning back and raising his leg off the floor while "gettin' a hold of it."


Herb was a dear friend. I first heard Herb in a big band, I believe Jimmy Dorsey's. I also got to hear him up close with the Soft Winds Trio with Johnny Frigo and Lou Carter. He was really important, as was Barney Kessel, as both went from big bands to small groups and then leaders. Herb and I became friends and I heard him a lot—it was just so exciting, that amazing trio with Herb, Ray Brown and Oscar. It swung so hard! He and I stayed in touch one way or another and I was really inspired by him personally. He had a very outgoing personality and was very giving. His playing was and still is really exciting for me. He was a big inspiration.

—JIM HALL, Guitarist

I was privileged to have met Herb in the late '50s—he was with Oscar Peterson in Chicago and we had a chance to first connect then. Several years after he called me and we since remained good friends. I always loved his playing. He was truly one of the greats. We worked together through several tours of Europe with the Great Guitars: Mundell Lowe, Herb and myself. I joined the Great Guitars and jokingly suggested calling it the "OK Guitars" since they had so many great guitarists before I joined—Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd, Barney Kessel. I did two tours with the Great Guitars featuring Herb and as this was getting close to when he stopped playing, I held his hand right through the whole trip. It was great and we had a good time. He did my "Guitar Nights," a weekly guitar series I started in 1997 and have had at various locations in Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, he did his retirement gig at the one on December 4th, 2000 at Rocco's. That became a tribute and his official retirement. I will always cherish the great musical moments and, as is the case with losing a great dear friend, there is always a lot of sadness—but I have great memories.

—JOHN PISANO, Guitarist

I played with Herb Ellis for many years and in all circumstances. He's probably one of the most complete jazz players I know, in every area of jazz. And he was always a lot of fun to work with and to be with. He had a great sense of humor. I worked with him on the Jazz at the Philharmonic tours—he of course was with the Oscar Peterson trio who I recorded with in 1954 and I worked with him at a lot of festivals and with a lot of good players over the years! His style was Herb. He sounded like Herb—that was his style. That I think was an important factor. There are a lot of musicians that copied a lot of players. He played his own way. We're sure sorry he's gone.

—BUDDY DEFRANCO, Clarinetist

Herb Ellis was a man of great pride and he played beautifully and with such simplicity. I had the absolute privilege and joy to share music with him for several years from the late '70s until his retirement. I of course heard that amazing threesome of Herb with the great Ray Brown accompanying and aligning with pianist Oscar Peterson. What Herb contributed to that group was like a Mack truck coming down the highway in terms of sheer force. His feeling of the rhythm was so powerful. He was a disciple of Charlie Christian of course and he brought that very powerful sense of blues—Texas Blues. I remember him telling me of when he was a little kid coming into the city with his dad from Farmsville—near Dallas—and he saw an old African-American man sitting on the curb just playing some of that blues music. That was a defining moment for him. In every note, you could hear his true self: you felt the true blues and the joy of who he was. I was in a very wonderful position to be playing with Herb and Ray. I treasure every moment on the bandstand with what was called the Triple Threat Trio. I remember, because of that powerful rhythm, when we were playing at the Blue Note one time, there was a line of great pianists, guitarists and bassists there and they said in amazement, "How can you play like that and have no drummer?!" The bond between Ray and Herb was one of the great friendships I ever encountered and they allowed me into that very special place.


My name for Herb was "gerbil," as he was on a real health food kick at that time, but the music that we shared was only grits and gravy... I miss him.

—RON CARTER, Bassist

Herb Ellis was one of the first big band guitarists I met when I came home from World War II. I went to New York to join Ray McKinley's band (1946). And at the time Herb was working with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, so we used to see a lot of each other. I got to know Herb and was impressed with him as a man and as a good player. He didn't sound like anybody else—he had his own thing. I realized also, as I got to know him, that he was a wonderful blues player. He got that great sound that players from Texas used to get. Those of us who knew Herb will always remember him and love his playing. He was an original... Go easy my friend, you played your best, now go home and rest.

—MUNDELL LOWE, Guitarist

I knew Herb since 1946! He was just getting off Jimmy Dorsey's band before forming the Soft Winds trio with Lou Carter and Johnny Frigo. I was on the road with Vaughn Monroe's band at the time. We would always cross paths somewhere. We even played softball against them, with some ringers from the clubs. I've always admired his playing. Occasionally, we played duets together. He was a disciple of Charlie Christian, but he went into the bebop area and did that extremely well. It was always swinging! He was a swinger and proved so when he played with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown. But that group, the Soft Winds, was sensational. I don't know why they broke up. I keep saying it over—but he was a swinger! He was a Texas boy and a beautiful guy with other people.


I met Herb when I was 19—and I'm 72 now. When I was 19, I got a call from vocalist/pianist Bobby Troupe who invited me over to his house to audition for a group of his. When I got there, Jack Sheldon was playing trumpet and Herb was playing the guitar. At the time, I was listening to the Oscar Peterson Trio's At the Stratford Shakespearean Festival album with Herb and Ray Brown that I had worn out by then. So to see Herb there was a big deal for me. We then became good friends and I played with him through the years off and on. I even made my first album with him [Herb Ellis' Thank You Charlie Christian for Verve in 1960]. Two other big things he helped me with were with my certain talent for studio work, which he immediately recognized, and playing different styles. And that's what I wound up doing—I did that my whole career. I did the Glen Campbell show for around five years and during that time the Carol Burnett Show was coming to town. I remember I was working with Herb at Donte's in Los Angeles the night when I got the call—they called me to do the Burnett Show. So I asked Herb, "What should I do? I'm doing another show already and have for some time." He said, "You should do it!" And so I did. Working the Burnett Show lasted the next 11 years. That advice really helped me in my career. Even though he wasn't in a great place the last years with the Alzheimer's, it's a great loss to the jazz community with Herb gone. He was a really nice and vibrant man and musician.


It was always a pleasure and a privilege to work with Herb. His enthusiasm, his near genius ability to fit in with groups and his technique were all totally admirable. He was certainly one of the best.


Herb Ellis was one of the best jazz guitarists we've had. He was a master of his instrument and the language of jazz. I realized how truly great he was when I filled in for him with the Oscar Peterson Trio in the summer of 1955. Working with Oscar and Ray Brown was a real challenge and Herb met that challenge admirably—he was able to function and groove with them playing a variety of music. Herb Ellis made many recordings and I'm sure his music will stand the test of time and place him in the highest ranks of jazz guitar. Herb and his music will surely be missed.


Herb Ellis showed me about support the first day I met him. I was 17 years old and it was my first professional gig, subbing for Ray Brown at an afternoon concert for The Musicians' Wives in LA. He knew how green and scared I was, probably from my visible trembling and he went out of his way to show me that I could rest on his shoulders. That was Herb. Herb was like an uncle to me, insisting that I swing, be a part of his joyful music world and love this life. It's not only his music that continues on, his deep kindness still affects my being.


My primary experience with Herb Ellis was playing together on my Norman Granz recording, my debut as a leader, in 1953 [Amazing Toshiko Akiyoshi, also known as Toshiko's Piano] with Oscar Peterson's rhythm section of Herb and bassist Ray Brown, plus Detroit drummer JC Heard. I was beyond excited. I also remember seeing the Oscar Peterson Trio with Herb and Ray play at Symphony Hall in Boston in 1956, shortly after I came from Japan to study in Boston. In my humble opinion, to be a member of the Oscar Peterson Trio—one, you have to have a great sense of time; two, you have to have great technical ability and, most importantly, you have to have great discipline to play with Oscar. Herb had all three. That says a lot of what a great player he was.


I had several opportunities to play with the great Herb Ellis and each time was a reminder of what a gracious and down to earth man he was. He was also one of the most swinging musicians on the planet! If I'm not mistaken the first time we met was on a gig with Ray Brown and Hank Jones, whom I'd played with many times previously. Even though Herb had never met or worked with me, he showed a kind and relaxed manner before a note was played and once the music started, he flashed knowing smiles and gave nods of approval. I believe the last time I played with Herb was in New York City at Town Hall with Oscar Peterson in 1996 [released as A Tribute To Oscar Peterson—Live At The Town Hall, Telarc]. Of course I loved his solos, but I could also listen to his accompaniment all day long. It was the epitome of groove and taste and it became evident to me that Herb was clearly one of the reasons why the drummer-less trio featuring himself, Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson swung so hard. I'm thankful I had the privilege of knowing him and making music with him.

—LEWIS NASH, Drummer

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