Before his untimely death in 1978 at the young age of 44, Don Ellis was one of the most creative and innovative jazz musicians of all time. In a career span of less than 25 years, Don Ellis distinguished himself as a trumpeter, drummer, composer, arranger, recording artist, author, music critic, and music educator. However, Don Ellis is probably best remembered for his work as a big band leader. His orchestra, which was active from 1966-78, achieved enormous popular appeal at a time when the influence of big band music was noticeably fading.
Ellis's significance lies in his use of groundbreaking musical techniques and devices, new to the world of jazz. Ellis's innovations include the use of electronic instruments, electronic sound-altering devices, experiments with quartertones, and the infusion of 20th-century classical music devices into the jazz idiom. Ellis's greatest contributions, however, came in the area of rhythm.
New rhythmic devices ultimately became the Don Ellis trademark. His compositions frequently displayed time signatures with numerators of 5, 7, 9, 11, 19, 25, 33, etc. His approach within more conventional time signatures could be equally innovative through the use of rhythmic superimpositions. Ellis's rhythmic innovations, despite much criticism, were not gimmicks, but rather a direct result of his studies in non-Western musical cultures, which included graduate work at UCLA's Department of Ethnomusicology
Ellis ultimately applied his experiences and knowledge of the music of non-Western cultures to the rhythmic language of jazz. He was one of the first to have accomplished such a fusion of ideas, and his works as a composer and an author stand as a memorial reflecting a significant stage in the evolution of jazz.