Wednesday, March 31, 2010
R.I.P. Herb Ellis
Herb Ellis, Jazz Guitarist, Is Dead at 88
By PETER KEEPNEWS
Herb Ellis, a jazz guitarist whose polished, blues-inflected playing earned him critical acclaim as an outstanding soloist and worldwide recognition as a member of the pianist Oscar Peterson’s trio, died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 88.
The cause was Alzheimer’s disease, said his son, Mitch.
Mr. Ellis was an early disciple of Charlie Christian, whose deft improvisations, built on long single-note lines, established the template for modern jazz guitar in the 1940s. But he was always more than an imitator: his style mixed the harmonic sophistication of bebop with the earthy directness of the blues and seasoned the blend with a twang more typical of country music than jazz.
While never a major star, he was long a favorite of critics and musicians. In 1959 a fellow guitarist, Jim Hall, praised his “fantastic fire and drive.” In 1990 Gary Giddins of The Village Voice raved about the “easy, loping quality” of his playing, “buoyed by familiar dissonances yet surprisingly free of cliché.”
Mitchell Herbert Ellis was born in Farmersville, Tex., on Aug. 4, 1921, and played banjo and harmonica as a child before taking up guitar. He studied at North Texas State Teachers College (now the University of North Texas), one of the first colleges to offer instruction in jazz (and later the first to offer a jazz degree).
In 1947 he and two associates from Jimmy Dorsey’s band, the pianist Lou Carter and the bassist Johnny Frigo, formed the vocal and instrumental trio the Soft Winds, whose song “Detour Ahead” became a jazz standard, recorded most memorably by Billie Holiday.
He first attracted wide attention during his five-year stint with Peterson’s popular group, which, like the Soft Winds, included a bassist (Ray Brown) but no drummer. The absence of a percussionist required Mr. Ellis to provide the rhythmic foundation for Peterson’s energetic playing as well as the guitar solos; he did it so well that when he left the trio in 1958, Peterson replaced him not with another guitarist but with a drummer.
Mr. Ellis’s reputation grew when he toured and recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, from 1958 to 1962. He was also a frequent participant in the impresario and record producer Norman Granz’s all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic touring shows, and in Granz-supervised recording sessions led by Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and, on occasion, Mr. Ellis himself.
When jazz fell out of fashion in the 1960s, Mr. Ellis became a busy studio musician in Los Angeles, earning his living mainly on television variety shows. He returned to jazz in 1973, teaming with his fellow guitarists Barney Kessel and Charlie Byrd in the group Great Guitars. He recorded frequently over the next two decades, with that group and as a leader, for the Concord Jazz label.
In addition to his son, of Los Angeles, Mr. Ellis is survived by his wife of 52 years, the former Patti Gahagan; a daughter, Kari Ellis Yedor, also of Los Angeles; and three grandchildren.