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William Ellis: Music On A Chink Of Light

Ian Patterson By

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"When it's over, it's a shake of hands and away. An exchange has taken place, a quite profound exchange. There's an affinity, for that person to be so giving of themselves. I love that intimacy. It fascinates me what people give out, and how they give it out to you and how you respond to it. It's what photography's about for me—it's an exploration of people. You're actually photographing yourself in a way, because it's the way you see things. It's like a mirror almost."



When it comes to photographic influences in addition to Karsh, Roy De Carava is one of the first names that springs to Ellis' lips. "I think he was the first Afro-American to have photographs purchased by Steichen in the Museum of Modern Art New York photography section there. He made massive steps for photography in the art world and also for Afro-Americans to be lionized in these establishment areas.

"His work was Harlem life. It's a document of a lifestyle because he was living it on the inside. When you see his work—The Sound I Saw (Phaidon, 2001) or The Sweet Flypaper of Life (Simon & Schuster, 1955) your jaw will drop—it's got so much spirit, humanity and warmth. It's very significant, profound photography.

"Then you've got people like William Gottlieb and Herman Leonard and those guys, and Lee Friedlander, who did a killer book on different genres of American music. He's better known as an art photographer now. In terms of jazz photography, probably Herman Leonard, because he's the other side of the coin to Roy DeCarava; Roy's work was real life and Herman's is more studied, more composed."

Although Ellis would shy away from any comparison with the likes of Leonard or DeCarava, his own talents have received notable recognition. Ellis was invited by the American Jazz Museum in Kansas to produce its inaugural International Exhibition in 2005, an honor which still humbles Ellis today.

"It knocks me out to feel part of creating the visual heritage of music and to be recognized in the States. It's indicative of the outlook of jazz—no nations, no borders— that a guy from England should be invited to produce the inaugural International Exhibition at the American Jazz Museum, in Charlie Parker's home town. I feel enormously privileged."

The American Jazz Museum recognizes Ellis' talent and the role he plays in portraying and recording this greatest of musical art forms, and has supported him in giving presentations of his work in Hong Kong and Penang, where this interview took place.

In addition, Ellis was invited to serve on the committee of the Milt Hinton Award for Excellence in Jazz Photography, where he sits alongside the legendary Herman Leonard. Ellis invited Leonard to attend the opening of another exhibition of his work at the American Jazz Museum in 2008: Jazz in Black and White: Bebop and Beyond. "He wrote back saying he couldn't attend," Ellis recalls, "but sent me a lovely note which read: 'Beautiful images; glad to see someone younger has the eye. Herman.'"

Ellis has plenty of good stories about his years photographing jazz artists all over the world, and plenty of photos, too, showing the lighter side of the subjects of his photos: "I went to see Herbie Hancock in Manchester. He was introducing his band—a really hot band, of course —saying he's the leader of this band, and he's just won an Emmy for this, that and the other, and when he comes to the harmonica player, Gregoire Maret, he says: 'All he has to do is turn up with his harmonica, and that's it.' Everybody laughs and then he says: 'Mind you, I don't have to bring the piano.' He's got a ten-ton truck carrying around his concert Grand. And you could see the thought had just occurred to him. It just cracked me up."



Ellis recognizes an affinity between playing jazz and doing jazz photography—two art forms which are carefully constructed yet which contain freedom, movement, spontaneity and inspiration. "Jazz to me feels in some way like a concept," explains Ellis. "It's a manifestation of feelings and attitude, but there's nothing there until it happens, and for me that's the same with a photograph. You have to have butterflies in the stomach to really go and do it. Every time I pick up a camera I have the same feeling, I imagine. I'm not a jazz musician, though I played in bands as a kid, so I have a little insight into how it feels.

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