In Memoriam: Herb Ellis (1921-2010)

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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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